When I was younger, I read like a book addict. I would rush home after school, complete all my homework as quickly as possible, and then curl up on the couch and read until my eyes burned.
At that age, I read for the stories. Now I read less, but I still enjoy it. I enjoy diving into another world for a few hours and becoming someone else. A few weeks ago, I started wondering if reading fiction had any benefits. Superficially, it might increase vocabulary and imagination, but was there anything else? After combing the web and reading studies, here is what I have learned.
Long-term fiction reading helps a reader become acquainted with different lifestyles, mindsets, and cultures. A study focused on young Harry Potter readers showed that extended contact with stories related to stigmatized groups improved the readers' perspectives towards these groups1. The effort involved in imagining and understanding the scenes and characters has been found to activate regions of the brain involved in handling interactions with other individuals2. In other words, reading fiction engages the brain's capacity to understand other people's intentions.
There is also emotional transportation, in which reading fiction can emotionally bring the reader closer to the characters. Some short-term studies3, 4 have linked this with an increase in affective empathy. TV, on the other hand, requires less effort to process as everything is already created on the screen. It is a more passive form of entertainment and reduces the emotional connection between the viewer and TV characters.
Note that most studies rely on correlations, and it is still unclear whether literary fiction leads to empathy or if emphathetic people are drawn to reading fiction.
Cognitive closure is the desire to reach quick and neat decisions to avoid ambiguity and confusion. This heavily relies on early information and often leads to difficulty in accepting new and more trustworthy points later on. It has been linked with a decrease in creativity and irrational processing of information. A study by the University of Toronto5 found that reading fictional short stories decreases the need for cognitive closure. This empirically makes sense since fiction readers are often exposed to ambiguity and confusion in novels.
I was surprised to learn that reading fiction can also activate different parts of the brain depending on what is being read. By reading words referring to physical actions, the same parts of the brain involved in motor control light up. This implies that reading about, for example, someone playing soccer, could help the reader (to an extent) improve their skills without ever leaving the couch.
The same goes for olfactory smells. Reading the word cinnamon activates the olfactory brain regions. With all these different parts of the brain being used, it is no wonder that reading fiction has been linked to a 20% reduction in risk of mortality in older-age study participants.