[What's Next?] Fiction for Your Brain
Written by
Cait Levin
February 2015
Written by
Cait Levin
February 2015

Typically when I read for fun, I read fiction. I have always been this way. I love information, so it seems like I should be naturally drawn to nonfiction, but that’s never been the case. I like the idea of made-up worlds, and I like that things generally work out in a positive way in those worlds. Nonfiction is not always so positive because, well, it’s real, and you can often predict the ending. That said, I’ve recently been reading two memoirs, which is new for me. Correction: I’m reading one and listening to another. For reading, Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl. For listening, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. I recommend both for either listening or reading, though Amy’s audiobook includes guest appearances (no Tina Fey yet) and is really not to be missed.  

Anyway, all this is to say that I am, generally, drawn to fiction. Recently I came across this article on mnn (thanks, dad!) about how reading fiction has actual psychological effects—a new study has shown that it changes the way you react to real live people. I probably could’ve told you that. As an avid reader and writer, people often tell me I’m very observant. Honk if you’ve heard that about yourself, fellow writers! My thesis adviser in college told us creative writing majors that writers are the meanest people, because they never miss a thing and remember it all, forever. I think this might also be true, but I keep my harsh conclusions to myself, unlike some other writers I have known. Hopefully you fall into the former category, as well.

The study showed a few things we already knew, including the fact that reading fiction improves connectivity in the brain. People read Pompeii, by Robert Harris, and even when they weren’t reading their brains showed an increase in activity. I’m guessing this would apply to any genre of book, but Pompeii was what they used in the study.

They also found that readers of fiction are more empathetic than people who read nonfiction. Participants in a study who read fiction experienced a higher level of “emotional transportation” than nonfiction, which makes sense to me. But I also wonder what books they read. I think there would be a difference in emotional transportation when reading Elie Wiesel’s Night and Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries, but perhaps with a reverse result.

The study also focused on different kinds of fiction—that is, popular or “pop” fiction and proper literature (which should only be pronounced with a British accent, thus denoting it as highbrow and smart). They found that people who read Chekhov were better at identifying facial cues and emotions than people who read Gone Girl. There’s a larger argument to be made there about “literary” fiction and everything else, but that’s for another post, I think.

Either way, the most interesting part of the whole story was the fact that reading is still, as it has always been, good for your brain. And not just because it makes you smarter—because it makes you a better person, too. I don’t know about you all, but where I live there has been literal ice rain falling on and off for two weeks. I’m about to curl up with a cozy blanket, a hot chocolate, and some good books. 

Cait Levin is the Community Manager at She Writes. You can read more of her blog (when she stops watching so much Dawson’s Creek and actually writes more of a blog) here.

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  • Ellen Cassedy

    Good memoirs ones share many characteristics with fiction -- vivid scenes, multi-faceted characters, suspense -- so I would bet, with Cait Levin, that reading memoirs would lead to the same positive increase in empathy as reading fiction.

  • Nina Gaby

    I was terribly disappointed in both those NF books....and I'm a huge fan of Lena Dunham.Huge fan. She is game changer and a brilliant voice for her generation. And a fearless young woman. "Not The Kind Of Girl" reminded me of something that was gutted by a bunch of scared old guys after the 3 million dollar bidding war promised something completely different. And Amy Poehler's book, which I downloaded as the kind of treat you describe (ice storm, hot chocolate...) but sadly it was not a treat at all. I could not find the arc, the writing was inconsistent, it was boring, and I couldn't even finish it. I love fiction but like others, I feel like reading CNF will teach me more, and after all, it is my chosen writing genre. I love, Cait, that you validate fiction for me. After deleting Poehler, and giving Dunham away, again not even sure I finished it, I need a good novel. Thanks for this post.

  • Sally Ketham

    Great post! From someone who generally reads nonfiction because I've believed it's more "productive learning" on some level, I appreciate learning all the ways reading fiction is more than just an entertaining indulgence! :)