Is fiction good for you?

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Changing our Minds

By imagining many possible worlds, argues novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley, fiction helps us understand ourselves and others.

For more than two thousand years people have insisted that reading fiction is good for you. Aristotle claimed that poetry—he meant the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which we would now call fiction—is a more serious business than history. History, he argued, tells us only what has happened, whereas fiction tells us what can happen, which can stretch our moral imaginations and give us insights into ourselves and other people. This is a strong argument for schools to continue to focus on the literary arts, not just history, science, and social studies.

But is the idea of fiction being good for you merely wishful thinking? The members of a small research group in Toronto—Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, and I—have been working on the problem. We have turned the idea into questions. In what ways might reading fiction be good for you? If it is good for you, why would this be? And what is the psychological function of art generally?

Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.

Possible selves, possible worlds

People often think that a fiction is something untrue, but this is wrong. The word derives from the Latin fingere, to make. As something made, fiction is different from something discovered, as in physics, or from something that happened, as in the news. But this does not mean it is false. Fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds.

In terms of 21st-century psychology, we might best see fiction as a kind of simulation: one that runs not on computers, but on minds. Such mental simulation unfolds on two levels.

The first level involves simulating the minds of other people: imagining what they are thinking and feeling, which developmental psychologists call “theory of mind.” The theory-of-mind simulation is like a watch, which is a small model that simulates the alternation of day and night as the earth rotates. Often we can’t see sun or stars, so we refer to a little model that we can carry with us, a wristwatch, which, as it happens, is more accurate than a device like a sundial that offers a direct read-out from the heavens.

Similarly, although sometimes we know what other people are thinking and feeling because they have just told us, for the most part we have to construct a mental model of the person to know what’s going on inside their heads. When we do this for emotions, the process is called empathy, and neuro-imaging studies suggest that when we recognize an emotion in someone else, our brains generate the same emotion. In effect, we are simulating the other person’s emotional state.

Fiction, as Lisa Zunshine has emphasized in her 2006 book, Why We Read Fiction, engages our theory-of-mind faculties and gives us practice in working out what characters are thinking and feeling. Indeed some genres of fiction—for instance, the mystery novel—are entirely concerned with working out what characters are up to when they are trying to conceal it.

The second level of simulation is about what happens when people get together. Just as computer simulations of atmospheric pressure, winds, and humidity are used to generate weather forecasts, so novels can be thought of as simulations of how people react to combinations of social forces. Near the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, for example, Jane Austen describes a ball. The novel’s protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, and her sisters are excited because they might meet potential husbands. But one of the most eligible men, Mr. Darcy, finds the proceedings provincial, and thinks they will be tedious. Austen is running a simulation in order to understand what happens in social groups when expectations clash in this kind of way. She’s offering insight into people’s lives and manners—insight that’s just as relevant to our world as to Elizabeth Bennet’s.


(Keith Oatley, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. He is the author of six books of psychology and two novels, the first of which, The Case of Emily V., won the 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel.)

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