Feed Your Brain, Feed Your Soul: Why Reading Fiction Matters

bricks as books

If you look at my bookshelf, you'll see rows and rows of non-fiction books. Business. Leadership. Biographies. Theology. Team Building. Pedagogy. Grammar and Style. Over time I've let the fiction side of my reading life slip away. Then earlier this year, my dear friend and mentor, Ed, shared a list of books with me that he had put together after weeks of scouring his local bookstore. With his gentle Kansas accent - unmarred from decades of living in Manhattan, -  he admonished, "don't forget to feed your soul, my dear."

I took his advice and I discovered that not only my soul but my brain benefited by my return to fiction. Here's a few reasons why.

Reading fiction makes you more empathetic.

A 2013 Emory University study looked at the brains of fiction readers. Researchers compared the brains of people after they read to the brains of people who didn't read. The brains of the readers — they read Robert Harris' Pompeii over a nine-day period at night — showed more activity in certain areas than those who didn't read. There was a heightened connectivity in the part of the brain typically associated with understanding language. The researchers also found increased connectivity in the area which helps the brain visualize movement. When you envision yourself as a character in a book you can take on the emotions they are feeling.

Reading fiction makes you more comfortable with ambiguity.

study published in Creativity Research Journal  demonstrated that people who have just read a short story have less need for “cognitive closure” than people who’ve just read a non-fiction essay. When compared with participants who read an essay, those who read a short story expressed greater comfort with uncertainty and chaos–attitudes that allow for higher level thinking and greater creativity. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

Reading fiction makes you more curious.

This same study makes the case that with ambiguity comes curiosity. I can't remember the last time I read a book of fiction straight through. Instead, I find myself stopping to Google the places and events that serve as the backdrop to my literary walk. As our brain becomes accustomed to ambiguity, it also become more and more curious. One neuroscience researcher makes that case that literature has made her a better cook: "The Last Chinese Chef had me exploring obscure alleyways in Chinatown in search of the best dumplings and peking duck, and before reading it I would have said Chinese food wasn’t really my jam."

Reading fiction makes you a better storyteller.

Telling stories is one of the most powerful forms of communication. We are wired to look for the connection of cause and effect, and stories help us do that. We think in narratives all day long, whether it be about going for groceries, talking with boss, or taking a walk on a beautiful summer day. Seeing how other people tell stories makes us better at telling our own. We become better at focusing on our internal dialogue and blocking out the noise of the surrounding world.

There are many more good reasons but those should be enough to get you to Goodreads... and as a bonus, here are the books that Ed recommended:

A Man Lies Dreaming - Lavie Tidhar

All the Birds Singing - Evie Wyld

The Painter - Peter Heller

The Enchanted - Rene Denfeld

The Tigerman - Nick Harkaway

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr


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