Fiction is a Path to World Peace
Neurological changes that occur while reading fiction suggest that reading fiction builds empathic thinking, and thus a shift in reading habits could help put the world on a path to peace.
In childhood, we learn a lot from books, but reading does more than moving information into memory. Neuroscience has shown reading changes the way the brain is wired, improving connections between the left and right hemispheres and shifting how facial recognition and holistic visual processing are handled in favor of better verbal memory. Reading increases your knowledge but also makes your brain work more efficiently.
These improvements to the brain continue beyond childhood, and recent studies have found even more benefits gained from specific types of reading.
What and how we read is important
Deep reading improves your ability to focus and grasp complex ideas. In this age of skimming news stories and Facebook posts the ability to focus for long periods of time waning in the culture. This is one reason I like the reading list feature on Medium. I can return to an interesting story when I have time rather than rushing through it. However, to really get the brain health benefits from reading, getting lost in a delightful story is best. Periods of deep reading can improve focus, but the big surprise for me was learning about the changes in emotional intelligence AKA emotional quotient or EQ.
Improvements of EQ occur only when we read fiction
Reading fiction requires taking on the perspective of the characters to understand the motivations that move a good story forward. Immersing ourselves in that fictional world makes our brain practice empathy and over time improve our EQ.
As we mirror the actions of the characters in our minds, the brain lights up the same regions that would occur if we were performing those actions. Read about a woodcutter swinging an ax and mopping his brow, and neural pathways are activated as if you were felling the tree yourself.
The building of empathy is even greater when the story told is outside our own experience. Reading The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates can let us experience a woman’s life in bondage, while the writing of Armistead Maupin can give us perspective on being LGBTQ+.
Empathy has become increasingly important as the world teeters on the edge of fascism, and according to a 2010 study, the empathic concern is down 48% since 1979. This figure is especially troubling when considering the number of books of all types consumed by Americans and men in particular.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) say they haven’t read a book, printed or otherwise, in the past year. Inside that 72%, average women hit 77% while men lagged at 66%. It is no wonder we are living in a politically polarized and angry society.
Read more fiction, especially if you are male
My reading preference up to a decade ago was about what you would expect for white, male, hetero. Reading about programming, history, and art, but almost no fiction. Thanks to my partner, I now live in a house filled with literature, and my Goodreads shelf, and my neural connections, are richer.
So if a more peaceful and just world can be had through a populace with more empathy, I encourage men, who still hold most positions of power to read more and read more fiction. I am offering reading recommendations that will transform the male, non-fiction reader, into a fiction enthusiast. It is not an overnight trip, but the destination is beautiful.
The March by E.L Doctorow is historical fiction set against real-life events. My interest in historical events drew me in, but it was the characters that brought the saga to life. Doctorow traces several walks of life, from the enslaved to the enlisted, to the officers including W.T. Sherman, and gives depth to the chaos and desperation of war.
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Your part in peace is simple
Getting absorbed in a wonderful story builds a better human, so get over to the library (or bookshop.org) for your next workout.