I love to read. There is something about getting lost in the written word that many people today just don’t seem to appreciate. While some books may take me longer to finish, and there are the rare few that are too badly written for me to even finish, there are those that I get so drawn into, they even influence my subconscious mind, weaving themselves into my dreams.
My personal preference is fiction. I love a good detective novel or one about espionage and magic – and some light, romantic chick-lit also has a place in my heart and bookshelf. One of my favourite places to be is in a book store or library. Nothing can beat the feeling of browsing through the countless shelves of books, running my fingers over the perfect spines and breathing in the heady smell of new books.
I find fiction to be a fantastic escape from the stressors of reality. So whenever I think I am going to implode or go on a homicidal rampage, I shut the lid of my laptop, grab my trusty paperback and take a 30-minute break, to regain my sanity. In fact, studies have shown that reading fiction can help alleviate boredom and stress, so my brief escapes are not due to procrastination but self-care.
Reading has also been shown to help us better interact with and understand others. It keeps our brains sharp and expands our worldviews, allowing us to grow as individuals. This is because stories, fiction or otherwise, allows us to feel connected with others and be part of something bigger than ourselves – putting us in situations, we most likely would not otherwise find ourselves.
Reading makes a person think and feel in new and different ways, explains Keith Oatley, PhD, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto. “You give up some of your own habits and thoughts, and you take on your own idea of being a different person in circumstances that you might otherwise had never been in.”
Back in 2009, Oatley and his colleagues found that after reading one of two different versions of the same story — one an original piece of fiction and the other a retelling of the same story written in a non-fiction style — participants who read fiction changed their personality traits more than those who read the non-fiction version of the story, and reported feeling higher levels of emotions.
“Social connection is a strong, human need,” the study’s author Shira Gabriel, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology at UB, said in a release shortly after the research was published. “Anytime we feel connected to others, we feel good in general and feel good about our lives.”
Turns out reading fiction also helps us to better understand, connect with and interact with others in the real world. This is because reading fiction helps improve empathy.
“We get to enter the minds of these other people. And in doing that we understand other people better,” Oatley says. Research he conducted has shown that people who reported reading the most fiction scored higher on both empathy and social ability tests.
If you can identify with a character in some way, you actually get to lead a different life (albeit temporarily) and studies have shown that the same areas of the brain light up when people read and comprehend fictional stories, in the same way it gets activated when we’re in the process of understanding other people.
It is true that reading improves our vocabulary. But neuroscience research shows that it is also great for other cognitive skills. This is because reading stimulates the neural networks in the brain that improve our social cognition and processing of abstract content.
A good book is oftentimes a much-needed escape from reality and all that it represents. Reading something that you enjoy can take your mind away from what’s worrying you, giving you a brief respite from life. It really is the best way to keep your sanity when things don’t go according to plan. So the next time you start to feel overwhelmed, go to your nearest library or book store and grab yourself a good read.
If you love a bit of murder and bloodshed, Karin Slaughter would be a good place to start – or if you need a bit of a laugh, I would recommend you give Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels a try.