Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

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37 responses

  1. I feel that fiction was a milestone for my son with Asperger’s Syndrome. He was a fact driven child and lacked imagination for the really adventurous ideas. He is so engrossed and a highly gifted reader now.

      • Honestly, I think it happened when I would be reading to my younger son (also on the autism spectrum) and my older son would listen in. I was reading the Silverwing Series. Oli would listen in and then when it was his brother’s bedtime he would ask to borrow the book. He now inhales books. 8book series in one weekend with no stopping him.

  2. In his book “The Storytelling Animal” (http://jonathangottschall.com/), Jonathan Gottschall does a fantastic job of explaining and contextualizing the research in psychology, neuroscience and psycholinguistics, that all together suggests that yes indeed, fiction does make you better at stuff. Its a great read.

  3. This is a somewhat-related interview : ) in which Paul Constant asserts “Books are empathy machines”. Okay, I’ll stop cluttering up your comments field!

  4. Siobhan-
    I notice you say you “occasionally” have a student who doesn’t read fiction but is creative and articulate. I think you answer your own query. They are the exception rather than the rule.
    I will admit that role play gaming and strategy “story” games have helped my sons be more creative. However, these things do not help them articulate their ideas. If you’ve heard the dialogue on these games, you’d understand why. I think people who are best at expressing their ideas are avid readers. I don’t think it needs to be fiction to have that effect.
    Looks like others here have given you avenues for research. Sorry I just contributed personal experience.

    • You’re right – I did say “occasionally.” That said, I don’t know for sure that there aren’t many other students of mine who fit that description, but with whom I haven’t discussed the topic. Maybe it’s an avenue for personal research!

    • I’d like to chime in on this topic with some personal experiences of my own. I grew up with a group of friends that frequently played video games, card games, board games and table top games. Some of them were fervid readers, while others, like myself, were not. What I found to be true is that there wasn’t much of a difference between us. The group of us that didn’t read books were just as articulate and creative as the group of us that read books, despite our disparate backgrounds.

      I really think what matters is the intellectual capacity of each medium that a person decides to devote time to. For instance, there is a large difference between spending hours playing Angry Birds or spending hours playing a role-playing game. Likewise, if one were to spend their time reading children’s fiction as opposed to more intellectually driven fiction, what that person will gain from that reading experience will be much less. Thus, each form of entertainment exposes the player (or the reader) to different levels of creativity. That being said, I’d be hard-pressed to make a blanket statement like “readers and more articulate than other people”.

  5. I love all the resources your readers are sharing and the query you posted! I am a teacher of English and have been for years, so–yes–I see value of reading fiction. But as one responder notes, it may be more a chance to use the imagination–regardless of the medium–that is the key. Teaching freshmen level classes for years in the past and again recently in some online classes, it seems that most students do not take the time to read much of anything. Those who are introduced to fiction and become hooked seem to grow in their ability to see the big picture, to contemplate the grays of the world–which helps in communication and problem solving. No sources, just hunches.

    I look forward to seeing where this provocative thread leads. Thanks, again!

  6. I don’t think fiction makes us more creative, but it does help us learn perspective-taking skills and improve our ability to relate to others. I think it can also help stave off loneliness and the effects of isolation. I am, of course, referring to the studies everyone else has cited. But I also think fiction saved my life: it suggested that it was possible for people to be different than the ones around me, and that other kinds of lives were not far out of reach. But I really think all reading and writing is about that: even fact-based work, because it is one person’s attempt to explain to others something that is important to them. If you are reading about dinosaurs, you are joining together with the author in enjoying your passion for dinosaurs

  7. I am inclined to believe that reading fiction ‘may’ help in the creative/imaginative process, but it doesn’t always lead to this result. I know many avid readers of fiction that are as imaginative and creative as a doorknob and vice versa. So much goes into making a creative being, most often beginning with what one is exposed to in childhood; the intellect of parents; the way one is rewarded for these characteristic; the people we keep company with; and, the many experiences we have in all categories of life.
    I, personally, do not read much fiction these days, I’m too much of a realist and find it difficult and tedious to keep an interest in the genre, even without this in my life I feel that I can be quite creative, more as a result of reading, taking part in and studying the subjects I am interested in.
    Also, I feel I am a pretty good judge of character without this activity in my life, mainly as a result of wisdom from a life of observation as well as knowing myself..
    Thanks for getting my imaginative juices flowing… a great subject!

  8. I believe engaging different aspects of the brain increases the efficacy of the entire person. Not everyone consumes fiction regularly, but how much other creative or artistic exposure do they have? You may ask the wrong question by asking about fiction. Some people consume creative stories through plays, poetry, or philosophical dialogue. Some people don’t read books, but spend every weekend investing in art, music, or other creative endeavors (pottery, perhaps, or interpretive dance lessons). The key to a well-rounded skill set is not necessarily reading, but a broad exposure to the arts as well as applied logic.

  9. I must admit that while I love fiction, I tend to read quite a bit more non-fiction in my spare time. I read a lot of philosophy, science, religion, and history books. In fact, I love books and essays about fiction, and I often find them just as entertaining and engrossing as stories themselves. However, I think my ability to appreciate non-fiction has been honed and inspired by my reading of fiction, and leads me back to fiction as well, so it’s a fairly reciprocal relationship. I’m not sure I can say that one is more necessary than the other for making us creative.

  10. Fiction can enlarge our worlds (and this can stimulate creative production). Whether it does so (or not) depends on a lot of things: whether we are struggling so hard with vocabulary that we’re missing the point; whether the characters are different enough but not too different; whether the plot line is at least on some level convincing (I learned less about struggle from Tolkien, whose plots are wonderful but impossible, than I did from much briefer reading of World War II first-person autobiographical accounts). And fiction is not the only thing that can enlarge our worlds: Lewis and Clark’s journey enlarged mine more profoundly than any other quest story I can think of. It’s not psychologically deep, but it is so REAL.

    The other thing to remember is that different people have their worlds enlarged by different types of art (and different types of craft, theology, travel, etc). I think that the most that any individual can say is that fiction enlarges their own world.

  11. Hi Siobhan,
    The question of the relevance and importance of fiction hunted me for years when I taught at a school where almost every student wanted to become either a doctor or an engineer. For most of their parents, these were the only two respectable careers. One claim made in an article stands out for me; it made so much sense when I looked at the difficulties my students encountered reading literature.

    The article talked about the importance of AMBIGUITY. Ambiguity is everywhere in the interpretation of literature, in approaches to reading, in responses to characters’ actions. The notion that not ONE, but many cultivated responses exist, are permissible and in fact encouraged by author, teacher, scholars was difficult for many students. It made them angry. They wanted ONE answer, one proper, correct interpretation just like in math or science.

    The article in The Globe and Mail from maybe two years ago, was written by (I think) some University of Guelph research professors. Hoping some of your blog readers can come up with the exact article.

    What stayed with me was their argument that accepting and living with ambiguity was important to civil society – and reading (and studying) fiction was the best way to understand ambiguity in society. Without people telling us who or what is ultimately good or bad, right or wrong, we have to “read” people ourselves, in context, as we do in a novel or story. Those people who love and need absolutes – no grey, no ambiguity – become extremists of every brand. Unable to deal with “maybe” or “possibly” or “you are both right”, they resort to killing, hating or dismissing those who see things differently.

    If anyone finds the article, please let me know.

    All the best in your research.

  12. Hi Again Siobhan,
    Do you know Martha Nussbaum’s work on this subject? She teaches in the Faculty of Law at the University of Chicago, and teaches literature to her law students. Her perspective, made in her book, Poetic Justice, says that for these students, being able to identify with the lives of people very different from theirs is necessary to being an effective lawyer. I’m simplifying her argument; I found the book compelling.

    Where are you on your research journey with this question?

  13. I read a lot of fiction as a child, then as a teenager I reached a point where all I got from fiction was frustration. If the world or people or experiences depicted were ones I enjoyed (even if they were realistically speaking glamorising unpleasant experiences) I couldn’t get over the sense of discomfort about that fact that it wasn’t real. These were people I would never get to meet, or places I’d never get to go to, or experiences I would never have. It happened the same sort of time that playing “make believe” stopped feeling fulfilling for the same reasons and started making me feel frustrated and dejected.

    I have recently tried to get back into fiction but for the most part I don’t engage with it for the same reason now as then. My main problem is that even non-fiction, life in general, is being destroyed by my acquisitiveness and my poor ability to appreciate things without wanting to own them, to make them mine.

  14. I’m a scientist and have been around many other scientists and non-scientists. I believe reading fiction doesn’t make you any more articulate and interesting than non-fiction. But I agree that it has a HUGE effect on not just creativity, but most importantly innovation. You can get creative with what already exists, but in order to truly innovate you have to dream up things that don’t exist. That’s where the fiction readers have a leg up.Which I think is why so many scientists, especially tech geeks, are big fiction (mainly sci fi) fans. It’s not just a bad stereotype, but I think if we were exposed to the idea that completely different worlds can exist with laws that are nothing like ours, then we are taught early that the possibilities are endless. We all know when you read and get sucked into a good book, you’re brought to a different world. So fiction fans have lived many outrageous lives. But I also think that accessing fiction comes in many different ways: comic books, movies, role playing, and video games. So fiction LITERATURE is not what’s important. It’s being exposed to fiction period.

  15. Simple. Eloquent. Well stated. Thanks! It is the ability to imagine other possibilities that helps with creative and critical thinking, with problem solving, with living life to the fullest.

  16. I don’t know about fiction specifically but reading creatively definitely has its benefits. I’m no scientist but I read a lot (fiction mostly, I’m not a big non-fiction reader) but reading makes me feel smarter. Plus, all the reading really helped me in my writing degree over the last few years :-) I think a lot can be learned from fiction. Especially fantasy. Using sweeping metaphors to speak to social contexts? You can read more into the interpretation of reality than reality itself, I think.

  17. I did not take the time to read the comments and posts from other users on here, however I did read your post fully and after reading it I was inspired to write my own comment. As a child I was read to extensively by my father and as I grew up it became a major part of my life. I have found that in my own life reading fiction inspired me to be more creative as I create worlds for Dungeons and Dragons. From the books I have read I am able to draw out inspiration and ideas for creating a believable campaign for my players who want to be involved in a well constructed fantasy world.

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