Can an imaginary world change how we act in real life, even make us more positive people?
by Amy Wong — Posted on Mar 30, 2012
Do you want to be a more positive person? Since you’re reading this blog, I bet your answer is yes. Here’s something you can do that will help you have a more positive attitude toward other people and better interactions with them. And it's something that might surprise you: Read fiction.
You’re probably wondering, Can an imaginary world change how we act in real life, even make us better people? Lovers of literature (bookworms like me) have long believed so, and now neuroscientists have found evidence to back that up. It turns out that in terms of brain activity, there isn’t much of a difference between reading about an experience and actually experiencing it. Studies using functional MRI (fMRI) scans have shown that a description of a movement stimulates the same region of the brain as performing that movement. For example, reading a sentence about kicking a ball lights up the part of the motor cortex that controls leg movement.
Same goes for social interactions. Raymond Mar, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, reviewed dozens of fMRI studies and found that the brain areas we use to comprehend stories (in which fictional characters interact) overlap with the brain areas we use in real-life interactions to understand the thoughts, emotions and motivations of others.
Other research by Mar and Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto, takes that connection further. One study found that people who read a lot of fiction are more empathic (they were significantly more accurate at guessing the mental state of others in a standard psychological test) and socially intelligent (they were also better at interpreting social cues in video clips of interactions) than those who don’t read much fiction.
But is it that more socially adept people are inclined to read fiction or vice versa? In a subsequent study, Mar and Oatley controlled for personality traits associated with social intelligence and randomly assigned people to read either a short story or an essay. Still, the fiction readers “showed a stronger understanding of social situations” than the non-fiction readers. The conclusion? As Oatley puts it, reading fiction “measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people.”
And the better able you are to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, the more positive your interactions with them will be. Which brings me back to what I said at the beginning. Want to become a more empathic, understanding and positive person? Pick up a good novel and dive in!