Bridgerton. The Office. Game of Thrones. Friends.
These popular TV shows all have one thing in common: they’re completely fictional. And adults spend hours on end watching them, immersing themselves in the worlds of these made-up characters in imaginary places. Entertainment value alone, it seems, is sufficient reason to invest in these stories.
So why aren’t more adults reading fiction?
“Fiction” encompasses plenty of genres: fantasy, mystery, romance, horror, and more. But for many, the idea of picking up a novel is juvenile at best-- and a waste of time at worst.
If you think your recreational reading time is only well-spent with a book on educational value, think again. While nonfiction certainly has its merits, fiction can be just as valuable, and it deserves some representation on your summer reading list.
In our productivity-obsessed culture, the entertainment value of fiction books is exactly what devalues them. And while it isn’t inherently wasteful to do things purely for enjoyment’s sake, that’s a soapbox for another day.
Believe it or not, reading fiction provides practical benefits to your brain and activates your neural pathways. Fiction may be entertaining…. but there’s always more to the story, and significantly more cognitive value than you may realize.
When adults read fiction, we engage in a “healthy escapism” that promotes mind-body relaxation. Mentally engaging with creative stories is associated with reduced stress levels. Moreover, when these fictional stories are consumed shortly before bed, they can improve overall sleep hygiene. (Maybe bedtime stories aren’t just for your kids!)
Don’t confine your favorite stories to your night stand, though. Whenever you read fiction, no matter what time of day, you are actively improving your cognitive function.
How do stories make us smarter? According to Aristotle, the only real requirement of fiction is that there should be some kind of logic behind it. No matter how far-fetched or close to home these stories may be, they only need to follow some pattern of reason. Therefore, every time you read fiction, you are enhancing your capacity for analytical thinking.
Along with improving our ability to reason, fiction has been associated with improved memory retention, greater vocabulary and language skills, and enhanced levels of creativity and imagination. All of these skills, when compounded, can translate to becoming more innovative in the professional space.
The benefits of reading fiction aren’t limited to the workplace, either. In everyday life, reading fiction is linked to increased levels of empathy. This helps us with:
In fact, functional-MRI studies have shown that the same brain pathways are used when identifying with fictional characters and situations as when we are navigating social situations in real life.
As we relate to these fictional worlds, seeing ourselves in them-- along with our loved ones, our struggles, our hopes, our fears-- we continually forge new neural pathways in our brains, furthering our capacity to effectively manage the situations in our day-to-day lives.
This increased relational function can be traced back to the ways fiction forces us to accept new points of view, opening our minds to worlds and ideas we may have never previously considered. As we are exposed to these new perspectives and experiences, we are left with a broadened understanding of the world around us. In the real world, this translates to increased cultural awareness, along with stronger cooperative ties with others.
All of this to say: if you’ve recently binged a show from your favorite streaming service, there is equal entertainment (and greater benefits) to be found in picking up a new novel. Keep all the personal development and business books you’d like on your summer reading list… just don’t forget fiction. You may be missing out on worlds you never dreamt possible-- on and off the page.