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. 

Share This


Tags: Consultant Corner


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


You May Also Like

talking with boss

How To Have A Courageous Conversation With Your Boss?

BY MICHELLE GIBBINGS. An age old problem many young professionals face is how to have open conversations with their boss. The difference in power dynamics can be understandably intimidating, but honest communication can be worth your while. Learn how to artfully navigate these conversations by reading this article.

Jan 11, 2022 1 Min Read


Two Signs to Find Clarity In Your Life Direction

Are you at a crossroad where you need clarity for your life direction? While we cannot control every element in our lives, there are two signs that you should be alert to. Watch this video where you can learn about these intersections and how you can find clarity in your life

Feb 28, 2022 1 Min Video

Be a Leader's Digest Reader