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Is Fiction Good for You?

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Are movies and novels simply pleasant ways to pass the time, like eating ice cream but less fattening? Since the ancient Greeks, it's been thought that fiction can be good for us. What if we turn this into a question? Can plays and novels and movies be good for you? If so, in what way?

Our recent results show, in a surprising and interesting way, that fiction really can be good for you. Research by a Toronto research group (Raymond Mar, Maja Djikic and me) had two steps. First we had think what a piece of fiction really is. Something made up? That's what most people seem to believe. A story? Yes. A description of the world from a certain point of view? Sort of. But none of these is very helpful psychologically. What is fiction in terms of how it is produced and understood by minds and brains?

In the 1990s I started to work on the idea that in psychological terms, fiction is a kind of simulation of the social world. If you were learning to fly an airplane, you'd do it better if you were to spend some time in a flight simulator. If stories are simulations of the social world, might we do better at understanding other people if we spent time engaging with fictional stories?

Seven years ago, Raymond Mar, then a graduate student working with me at the University of Toronto, decided to test the idea about simulation by measuring the amount of fiction and nonfiction people read, and giving them two tests of social understanding. With three other colleagues, he and I published the study in 2006. One of our tests of social understanding was to show people a set of photographs of people's eyes from Simon Baron-Cohen's Mind-in-the-Eyes test. Each photo is of someone's eyes as if seen through a letter box, with mouth and forehead not visible. In each photo the person is feeling and thinking something different, and people who take the test have to say what this is. The test measures empathy, and what psychologists call theory-of-mind: understanding what another person might be thinking and feeling. The second test was of 15 video clips of people in social interaction, in which people have to answer a question about what was going on in each clip. We found that the more fiction people read, the better they were at the Mind-in-the-Eyes test, and better they were too, though to a lesser extent, at the perceived social interaction test. People who read a lot of non-fiction weren't better at these tests.

In a more recent study to replicate the first, we found the association between reading fiction and better social understanding wasn't because empathetic people prefer to read fiction. We measured this and other differences between people, and when we subtracted out all these individual differences between people, the relation between reading fiction and understanding others still held up. It looked as if reading fiction increased empathy and social understanding, not that socially skilled people read more fiction. Raymond Mar and two other colleagues also did a study on preschool children, and found that the more stories the children had read to them, and the more movies they watched, the better was their understanding of others. Watching television had no such effect.

We have now done a range of studies on effects of reading fiction. Some confirm what people in university departments of literature might think. Others are more surprising. You can read about them in my new book Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction (Wiley-Blackwell). The idea of fiction in terms of how the mind works, as a kind of simulation, isn't new: it was an idea that Shakespeare had; his word for "simulation" was "dream," and that's where the title of my book comes from. You can also read about results of our own and other people's studies and reflections on the psychology of fiction in our blog-cum-online-magazine www.onfiction.ca