Why Reading Novels Is Good For Your Brain

Jan 15, 2014 4 Min Read


“A novel is a direct impression of life.” – Henry James

Good point.

Reading fiction, it turns out, is a great way to develop your social brain. Research shows that reading novels, for example, shapes our brains and moulds our social skills.

A study by Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar found that reading fiction improves your ability to connect with others.

The study demonstrated that people who read fiction perform better on tests of empathy. This result held up even when they controlled for the variable that empathetic people might naturally choose to read fiction.

The study found that the more fiction a person read, the stronger the ability to make mental models of others.

Another study in 2010 found that children who are exposed to lots of fiction material possessed a stronger ability to read the brain states of others.

In 2009, in another study, Oatley found that adults who read novels improved their socials skills, including emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and extroversion.


Why does this happen?

It seems that reading fiction allows you to “live in other people’s brains”. The result is a stronger theory of mind.

That is, the ability to take the perspective of another, to understand that person’s mental model, to see issues and ideas in terms of other people’s experiences.


Think about these practical benefits:

  • Better relationships
  • Improved leadership skills
  • Increased collaboration skills
  • Greater emotional intelligence – greater income (P. Salovey, Yale)
  • Excellent, inexpensive entertainment
  • A greater understanding of human character
  • When you put the book down, you are better prepared for the world

Remember – your brain is wired to see what is essential, not what is real. Reading fiction intervenes in your cognitive processes. It can even change your personality.

FMRI scans show the brain responding to fiction as if the reader were feeling and acting just like the characters.

This might interest you: Why Reading (And Learning From What You Read!) Is Critical To Your Success


Scientific American Magazine recommends these nine novels to sharpen your mind:

  1. The Sorrows of Young Werther – Johann von Goethe
  2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  3. The Scarlett Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  4. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  5. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  6. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  7. Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
  8. Beloved – Toni Morrison
  9. Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee

Related post: 5 Reasons Why Reading Is Good For You

I used to feel slightly guilty when reading a novel. Thinking I should be reading something “real”. Not any more.

Congratulations on learning something about your brain today. The Brain Bulletin is committed to help to do just that. Always remember: “You are a genius!”

Enjoy your brain.


Terry Small is a brain expert who resides in Canada and believes that anyone can learn how to learn easier, better, faster, and that learning to learn is the most important skill a person can acquire. To interact with Small, email editor@leaderonomics.com. Click here for more brain bulletins. 

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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