Changing our Minds

By imagining many possible worlds, argues novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley, fiction helps us understand ourselves and others.

1933 ---  by Josef Scharl --- Image by © Christie's Images/CORBIS
1933 — by Josef Scharl — Image by © Christie’s Images/CORBIS

“For more than two thousand years people have insisted that reading fiction is good for you. Aristotle claimed that poetry—he meant the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which we would now call fiction—is a more serious business than history. History, he argued, tells us only what has happened, whereas fiction tells us what can happen, which can stretch our moral imaginations and give us insights into ourselves and other people. This is a strong argument for schools to continue to focus on the literary arts, not just history, science, and social studies.

“But is the idea of fiction being good for you merely wishful thinking? The members of a small research group in Toronto—Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, and I—have been working on the problem. We have turned the idea into questions. In what ways might reading fiction be good for you? If it is good for you, why would this be? And what is the psychological function of art generally?”

Illustration: Frederick Serger–Wife Helen Reading

2 thoughts on “Changing our Minds

  1. Susiema

    Great article about the scientific data for fiction expanding EQ – another good reason for joining a Book Club and Book Blog.

    What it doesn’t touch on is the tangible advantage of expanding vocabulary – the building blocks of communication. So often, violence results from failed negotiations. And how can anyone explain a viewpoint or negotiate an agreement if the only tools available to them are “Like, you know, whatever” ?

  2. suroora

    Yes, vocabulary gets a boost and general knowledge too. I can’t think of any reason not to read–and not to read fiction!

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