Is reading fiction good for your brain?

Fiction or Non – do you have a reading preference?

When was the last time you engaged in reading a book, or a substantial online article?

Do your daily reading habits stretch no further than tweets, mundane Facebook updates, or the cooking instructions found on Pinterest?

If you’re one of countless people who refuse to make a habit of reading regularly, you are missing out on a powerful strategy for improving your brain health.

In my role as a professional speaker, I encourage audiences to learn to communicate through story.  There is something truly hypnotic about a proficient story teller.  When they begin, our imaginations are captured and we tend to like these communicators more.  But no one gets good at telling stories by accident.

In fact, that last comment is why I decided to acquire the skill and tackle writing novels myself.  I wanted to become a better story teller so I could inspire and influence behaviours with more fluidity.

The Accidental Audience was my first book in (what would come to be known as) the Colbie Colleen Suspense series.   My initial intent for writing these books was to help readers accidentally learn something about how they interact with the wold and the people in it.  I wanted them not to have to do homework at the end of every chapter, but simply become captivated in a page turner.  Thus – accidentally learning something.

Today I am thrilled to announce that my 3rd novel in the series launched on Amazon this month.  Apology Accepted  is now available in soft cover or eBook formats – whatever your preference may be!

Sadly, many of you won’t grab these books.  And you will be missing out.


Perhaps you believe that reading fiction is a waste of time.  Why bother engaging in an activity solely for pleasure.  You don’t have that kind of spare time.  If you are going to read, you want it to help you develop a tangible skill, don’t you?

When I hear these grumblings, it makes me wonder… “is fiction getting a bad reputation”?

Well – I have done the research – dove into the net and devoured the white papers that might level the playing field in this regard.

Now, my analytical friends, the rest of this post is for you.  (And for those who have secretly enjoyed reading for pleasure, here are the responses you will need when you are cuddled up with a good book, letting those dishes wait!)

First … The debate:

We spend huge chunks of our lives immersed in novels, films, TV shows, and other forms of fiction. Some see this as a positive thing, arguing that made-up stories cultivate our mental and moral development. But others have argued that fiction is mentally and ethically corrosive.  Which side should we believe?

Now … The Research:

Yes of course I have a bias as an author, but it turns out the researchers believe that ….

Reading fiction is a great way to develop your social brain.

The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs and creating hopeful mindsets than nonfiction.

Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are more critical and skeptical. But, when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our guard. We are moved emotionally.  According to the neuro-researchers, this causes us to be more open to learning and absorbing new ideas.

2013:  A study by Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar found that reading fiction improved our ability to connect with others. The study demonstrated that people who read fiction performed better on tests of empathy. This result held up even when they controlled for the variable that empathetic people might naturally choose to read fiction. The study found that the more fiction a person read, the stronger their ability to make mental models of others.

2010:  A study found that small children exposed to lots of fiction material possessed a stronger ability to read the brain states (emotions) of others.

It seems that reading fiction allows you to ‘live in other people’s brains’. The result is a stronger empathetic mind.  (That is, the ability to take the perspective of another, to understand that person’s mental model, to see issues and ideas in terms of other people’s experiences.)

If this is true, then just think of the practical benefits being applied in your life:

  • better relationships.
  • improved leadership skills.
  • increased collaboration skills.
  • greater emotional intelligence = greater income. (P. Salovey, Yale)
  • excellent, inexpensive entertainment.
  • a greater understanding of human character.
  • Greater creative capacity through stimulation of imagination.

It would seem that reading Fiction is a uniquely powerful way to understand others, tap into creativity and exercise your brain.

For those out there who might feel even a tiny bit guilty for picking up a work of fiction instead of a self-help book, consider these …

 7 specific benefits of reading fiction

  1. Empathy  

Putting yourself in the shoes of others, grows your capacity for empathy.  Multiple studies show that imagining stories activates the regions of your brain responsible for understanding others and seeing the world from a broader perspective.  That’s because when we read about a situation or feeling, it’s very nearly as if we’re feeling it ourselves.

Two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. Their brains reacted as if they were living the events they were reading about.

By the way ….This neural response is the reason mental conditioning works so well with my athletic clients.

  1. Stress Reduction

Your brain can’t operate at maximum capacity 24/7. We need periods of disengagement to rest our cognitive capabilities if we hope to function at peak levels when we need to.

Tony Schwartz talks about this as one of the most overlooked elements of our lives:  “Even the fastest racing car can’t win the race with at least one or two great pit stops. The same holds true for ourselves. If we don’t have “pit-stops” built into our days, there is no chance we can race at peak levels.”

Reading fiction is among the very best ways to get that rest for your brain.

By the way… Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, like meditation (and hypnosis), and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.

  1. Improving your Sleep  

Creating a sleep ritual is a great way to build up a consistent sleep pattern. Serial optimizer Tim Ferris believes in the power of reading before bed—fiction only: “Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention”.

  1. Improved relationships

Life is complicated. Oftentimes, interpersonal relationships and challenges don’t have the simple resolutions we might crave.

Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, proposed that reading produces a kind of reality simulation.   Just as computer simulations can help us come to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities inherent in our social lives.

  1. Memory Enhancement

We know that hearing a story is a great way to remember information over the long-haul.  Now there’s also evidence that readers experience slower memory decline later in life compared to non-readers.  Studies show that readers have a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline compared to their peers.  In addition to slower memory decline, those who read more have been found to show less characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2001 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  1. Developing Creativity

In the movies, we often long for a happy ending. Have you noticed that fiction can be much more ambiguous?  That’s exactly what makes it the perfect environment for creativity.  A study published in Creativity Research Journal asked students to read either a short fictional story or a non-fiction essay and then measured their emotional need for certainty and stability.  Researchers discovered that the fiction readers had less need for “cognitive closure” than those who read non-fiction.  These findings suggest that reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity.

  1. Pleasure

All the above factors are great. But the very biggest reason I try to read every single day? I love it.  It makes me happy, and I’m not alone—a survey of 1,500 adult readers in the UK found that 76% of them said reading improves their life and helps to make them feel good.  Additional surveys noted that those who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile.

In Summary

Given the compelling body of evidence, fictional reading must be doing something good for us so why not grab a novel today.

Might I selfishly suggest –  the Colbie Colleen Series.  You could become captivated while learning a little more about human behaviour!


Faith Wood is a former law enforcement officer and professional speaker, as well as an entertainer. As an author, she brings life to her characters based on her understanding of human behavior. A mother of four, Wood lives with her husband in Vernon, British Columbia, Canada