Fiction is, by definition, a kind of invention. Whether it’s visual, spoken or written – there’s a reason it’s called “make-believe”. As a result, many people condemn fiction as not doing the human brain any good. But like book covers that can mislead, this too is a misconception.
Fiction aims to expose social truths. It is often created from the perspective of the vulnerable, allowing viewers to learn about different points of view. Good fiction helps you understand and empathise with others, because, in a way, you can imagine yourself living the lives that these characters have. And when you read or watch enough of it, you feed your brain with ideas and perspectives that could come in handy when you face demanding situations.
According to a study published in Science, readers of literary fiction had better social-cognitive skills than the ones who read purely philosophical and motivational non-fiction books. Put another way, fiction readers can understand that others have beliefs that may be different from their own. These individuals are ready to consider those factors that lead to differences in beliefs, empathising with others in the process. Moreover, people who read non-fiction are only motivated by the content for a short period, and only remember bits and pieces.
Another study suggested that readers became more empathetic towards marginalised groups after reading discrimination-focused passages from Harry Potter.
I could go on and on about experiments and studies that have cited reassuring evidence of reading benefits, especially in developing vocabulary, imagination, EQ and social awareness, among other things. But as a person who has come to enjoy the gifts of fiction, I would like to explain things with a story.
Remember when Atticus Finch told the world that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird?
At that point in the story, we perhaps couldn’t make much of it. But later, as the case unfolds against the Black man, we feel the weight of the sin that the panel commits by convicting him.
Fiction opens our eyes to the inner workings of society. It helps in awakening us to experiences of racism, casteism, patriarchy and prejudice, not only in our immediate contexts but all around the world. Fiction encourages us to be empathetic and just.
One could argue that because fiction is, well, fiction, you will probably never end up experiencing what the protagonist does in stories. But the underlying lessons writers weave into these tales endure, even after you’ve finished watching a film or put a book away. It could be as simple as schoolbook stories that end with the words, “The moral of the story is…”
Being an average student, I can vouch for the power of these stories. Not only were they fun and an interesting way of making us learn valuable lessons, but these were also the lessons that I never needed extra help with. Honestly, how many of us remember algebra or statistics? Even peers who opted for more technically demanding fields like law or medicine would admit recalling short stories from English classes better than reading the Constitution or tomes on human anatomy.
On a deeper level, reading fiction helps us find our paths and reveals to us what we want to do. My best friend received Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird as a child; after several re-reads, she went up to her parents to tell them about her decision to pursue LLB. I went into architecture because my father is in the field, but I hated it for years till I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Just like that, I fell in love with the world of tall buildings and futuristic designs.
And as for imagination, since most fiction is imagination, it is bound to stir your creativity. When you read other writers or experience what screenplay writers did with their thoughts, you’ll start pushing your cognitive boundaries.
So next time you pick fiction, know that you are taking a step towards improving your imagination and increasing your emotional quotient.