In The New York Times Sunday Review, blogger Annie Murphy Paul describes neuroscientific research showing that the brain is stimulated in different ways by fictional tools like metaphor and colorful language. Reading stories, according to the researchers Paul has spoken with, are healthy for the mind and instructive in social interactions.
She quotes one scientist at length, Dr. Keith Oatley, emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto: "Fiction is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
Paul is the author, most recently, of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.
Oatley is also a novelist. He and his partner, Dr. Raymond Mar of York University, along with a group of other scientists, found in two different studies that "individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective."
The very good news about these effects of reading fiction is that they extend to children. "A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television."
As an avid and lifelong reader, I've always been plagued by a vague sense of guilt about the hours I spend immersed in novels of all sorts. No more! Now I know I'm not wasting time—I'm improving my mind.