The Ultimate Exercise for Your Brain: Five Reasons to Read Fiction
Reading Isn’t a Waste of Time
As a lifelong reader who devotes a fair amount of time to books, I get asked a lot about how I manage to find time to read as much as I do. The answer is really quite simple: I make time for reading because it’s a priority. It’s my best method of understanding and engaging the world. I read because I have an insatiable need to know more, to think more deeply, and to understand the people around me.
“I simply can’t justify reading when I have so many more productive things to do,” a friend recently told me. Sure, his comment carries a whiff of patronizing self-importance, but it represents a cultural idea: to sit still with a book, especially if you enjoy it, is tantamount to pleasure-gluttony. In my friend’s mind, reading is the same as eating a bag of chocolates in one sitting: pleasant, but bad for you.
If you are one of those people who avoids reading for fear that it isn’t a productive activity, I have good news. Recent research shows that reading does improve our thinking in ways that we may only be able to get from reading. Not only does reading make us better humans, but it may also be the key to developing and maintaining a healthy brain well into old age.
Any kind of reading is beneficial to the brain, but it appears that fiction may have particular benefits because the narrative form, in which we must experience the story along with the characters, requires our brains to practice and master functions that we simply don’t get from other cognitive activities.
As you’ll see below, reading is a high-octane workout for your brain. There’s no reason to feel guilty about reading. It may be the best method we have for keeping our brains healthy, agile, and flexible.
1) Reading fiction requires your brain to focus for sustained periods of time
When we read, our brains have to filter out constant distractions. Those distractions include everything from ambient noise to the magnetic pull of a phone or another device that provides access to instant novelty. The more we focus on a task that requires deep focus, the better we become at focusing in all activities. And the more we focus, the clearer our thinking is.
2) Reading fiction demands that our long-term memories juggle multiple pieces of information and then recall them later
When we read novels, we are presented with multiple characters who encounter each other and events within vivid settings. To keep track of everyone and what they are doing, our long-term memories have to encode all that information so we can later call up characters’ relationships with each other, their actions, and the results of those actions. Practicing this kind of long-term memory storage and retrieval improves memory in general, in much the same way lifting weights build muscle.
3) Reading fiction requires us to engage in perspective-taking
When we read, our cognitive processes are going wild as we make sense of why one event or action led to another. Maryanne Wolf, neuroscientist and author of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, presents cognitive research that shows when we read fiction our brain activity literally simulates the brain processes of the characters.
In other words, if a character experiences a trauma, we experience it alongside them. By learning to understand the characters’ emotions, we are building our ability to feel and express empathy, both in the context of the book and in our lives.
4) Reading fiction requires us to draw on our existing reservoirs of knowledge to understand what we read
The more we read, the bigger our knowledge base becomes. To understand the context of a novel, we have to draw on previous knowledge.
For example, a historical novel set during the American Civil War requires that we know something about that event. A novel about an unethical investment banker requires that we understand something about banking and about what constitutes ethical behavior in that context.
As we read novels, we build a stronger, wider, and deeper internal knowledge base. And a larger knowledge base has the added bonus of making future reading even richer.
Perhaps more important, our increased knowledge base makes us less likely to fall for false information. Put another way, reading makes us smarter and better equipped to understand and analyze the information we encounter in the future.
5) Reading fiction makes us better analogical thinkers
Effective analogical thinking — where we map our understanding of one thing onto another — requires a symphony of cognitive processes working in harmony. For example, when we read 1984 by George Orwell, we are being asked to compare aspects of Orwell’s world to our own. That cognitive exercise enhances our understanding of both worlds.
Analogical thinking is necessary for developing a deep understanding of human experience. I will never in a million years experience the horrors of slavery, but I can recognize the ways in which loss, pain, and trauma resoundingly shape human lives. That knowledge can be the impetus for action, for resistance, for equity.
It’s tempting to think of reading fiction as a guilty pleasure, but as Wolf argues based on her cognitive research, the depth of our reading is a marker of the quality of our thought. And deep thinking is the best way for all of us to keep our brains focused, sharp, and critical for years to come.
If we want to be better people, let’s start by being better readers.