The implication is that nonfiction is a higher calling, that fiction is a frivolous pastime while nonfiction is a serious education. This has been a push-pull throughout the history of the novel, especially since early novels tended towards salacious or scandalous, more Danielle Steel than Ian McEwan.
Poet Samuel Coleridge, (1712 to 1835) stated his case thus:
I will run the risk of asserting that where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind: it is such an utter loss to the reader, that it is not so much to be called pass-time as kill-time. It…provokes no improvement of the intellect, but fills the mind with a mawkish and morbid sensibility, which is directly hostile to the cultivation, invigoration, and enlargement of the nobler powers of the understanding.
My brain must be a mawkish mess because I love a good novel (currently reading Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, thumbs up). I love nonfiction too, but the escape and emotional charge novels provide have always been preferable to me (unless we’re talking narrative nonfiction, like Erik Larson’s engaging histories or a book I recently read in practically one gulp, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home).
So I was gratified to read this New York Times story about the neuroscience of reading fiction.
Some mighty nice connections are being made between reading fiction and how we behave in real life.
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.
It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. … individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.
I would love to see the study taken another step–comparing reading what are considered trashy novels with reading literature. Are “good” books more effective in honing our theory of mind? I’m betting no, that any book dealing with personal interactions will have the same effect. On the other hand, how do, say, Harlequin romances read in quantity (as fans of them tend to do) affect a person’s theory of mind? Do people who read mostly mysteries and thrillers have a mistrustful theory of mind?
In a somewhat related study, researchers found that watching tragic movies increases people’s feelings of gratitude.
…watching tragedy inspires self-reflection, which allows us to re-focus on the people in our lives we might otherwise take for granted. The melancholy emotions these tales arouse ultimately provoke pleasant feelings of gratitude.
I’m going to generalize this study to include reading. I imagine the researchers used movies because it’s a lot easier to sit a bunch of college students/research participants in front of the movie Atonement than sit them down and have them read the whole book. But we are still talking about lies and make-believe, i.e. stories, and the good they can do for us.
Taken together, these studies should give fiction its due. Reading novels is, in fact, educational. It helps us with the soft skills. And that’s pretty important stuff. So nanner, nanner, Mr. Samuel Coleridge.
Photograph by bulinna via Flickr (Creative Commons).