Many people don’t read fiction because at some point they came to believe that fiction is all about escapism and is just a waste of valuable time that could be spent on something more productive. But it isn’t true. In fact, reading fiction is perhaps one of the best ways to learn how to live our lives better and more productively.
Reading Fiction Strengthens Problem-Solving Skills
Spoiler Alert: When Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (in The Hunger Games) are the only two tributes left at the end of The Hunger Games, and Katniss is faced with the prospect of having to kill someone she cares about to survive, your brain as a reader is already looking ahead, imagining scenarios of how she and Peeta could both get out of the arena alive.
It’s the way your brain works. Reading fiction is an immersive experience. Scientific studies tell us that our brains react the same way when we read a fictional experience as they would if we were going through that experience ourselves.
Our brains are always looking ahead, trying to fill in gaps in knowledge with possibilities because we don’t like being left in the unknown. That’s why someone can pick up a novel, start reading, and finish it several hours later. They simply had to know what happens.
This is important for our problem-solving skills. Characters in a story are perpetually presented with problems and the whole story is about them exploring and discovering solutions to their problems.
When we read a story, our brain takes a journey with the character, which means we’re exercising our problem-solving skills. And exercise only makes them stronger.
In real life, relationships, and in business, problem-solving is an invaluable skill.
Reading Fiction Strengthens Our Ability to Make Connections
An extension of problem-solving is the way our brains look ahead and make connections. Creativity is all about looking at pieces of information and making connections to come up with something new.
When you’re reading a story and your brain is processing all these possibilities about what might happen in order to fill in the gaps of knowledge, you are the one creating all those possibilities based on the connections you’ve made as you’re reading. The author has given you the material to work with, but it’s your imagination that’s piecing together possible scenarios of how the story might play out. That’s creativity at work.
Whether you find yourself to be right or wrong in your predictions, either way, you win because you’re engaged in the creative process throughout the entire journey.
Reading Fiction Helps Us Experience Empathy
The people who understand other people the most, and are therefore able to relate to people better than most, are those that are able to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Reading fiction does that, and once again, scientific studies back it up.
Reading fiction allows you to live inside the experience of another person. Your brain doesn’t differentiate between what you read and what you actually experience.
While your body might not go to Middle Earth or Hogwarts or any other fictional world, your mind does, and you gain the wisdom of all the people whose fictional lives you experience through reading a story.
Putting yourself in a fictional character’s shoes will help you to understand the people you know in real life better because you’ve been exercising how to relate to people in your imagination as you read. That exercise is valuable and productive.
In real life, in relationships, and in business, interpersonal communication is vital, and fiction helps you to navigate those waters more effectively by giving you valuable practice time.
Reading Fiction is a Valuable Use of Time
Reading fiction produces other benefits as well, such as increasing your vocabulary, relieving stress, improving your memory, and helping you sleep better.
Reading nonfiction is great too, and I love reading books about increasing my productivity as much as anyone, but if you want to read something that will help you better understand people and the world around you, there’s nothing like walking a mile or more in a fictional character’s shoes.
Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller who believes in crafting lies to tell the truth. When he’s not enjoying the good life with his beautiful wife Lindsey and their three much-adored children, he’s striving to create stories that thrill and inspire and preparing for the day Disney calls him to write a Star Wars movie. He’s also a contributing editor at daCunha.global. His work has also appeared on Panel & Frame, Wordhaus, Curiosity Never Killed the Writer, and The Unsplash Book. Check out his fiction writing portfolio on Medium.