Is fiction good for us? – Colin Falconer @colin_falconer

Is fiction good for us?

Colin Falconer


Is fiction good for us?

At school I was told that only certain literature was good for me; good books had to be literary, approved by the district Education Board, preferably a classic. Perhaps that idea came all the way down from Plato, who wanted to ban fiction altogether from his ideal republic.


“Dan Brown? Not in my Republic.” (photograph: Lufke)

But Plato, that grim and self important pedagogue, had it all wrong. We know this, because advances in neuroscience and the latest methodologies used to map the brain have demystified the process.

Curling up with a good book is not a selfish indulgence. They’ve proved it. Reading fiction is good for you.

These days scientists can put electrodes on your head to see what happens when you read. At school they used exams to test how much information your brain retained but the new neuroscience can measure how much your brains reacts.

It’s called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), if you’re interested.

Raymond Mar, from York University in Canada, published his findings in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2011. He found significant overlapping between parts of the brain we use to understand stories and those parts we use to understand other people.


‘I still think I learned more from Lassie.’ (photo: Andrea Arden)

Whenever we meet someone we try to figure out their thoughts and feelings, so we know how to respond to them. We get a lot of our information on how to do this from stories.

Why? Because the novel offers something unavailable to most of us in real life; the opportunity to engage completely in someone else’s viewpoint.

It’s the way our brains are wired. You can be moved by Martin Luther King’s speeches; but read The Help and you start to feel emotionally invested. Suddenly you have just the merest sense of how it might have felt to be black and poor in sixties America. The argument is no longer abstract. It’s personal.


‘Please I’m too tired to read about Henry VIII. I was up all night reading Wolf Hall.’

Wait, though. Could it just be that people with more empathy for others read more novels?

Apparently not; a further study in 2010 showed that small children (aged 4-6) who were read to a lot could read other people far better than other children. In other words about the time a kid can tie their own shoes, they can also learn to walk in someone else’s.

[Interesting sidenote: this trend was imitated by watching movies but not by watching television. Mar speculates that because children watch movies mostly with their parents, they have the opportunity to ask questions about the interactions taking place, and learn; but they watch TV alone. Also movies are stories; TV is a jumble of many things.)


‘Ah-hah! Now I get why Mom has such terrible interpersonal relationships with her sisters.’ (photograph: Andy Eick)

But hold on thar a gosh-darn minute. Storytellers are obsessed with vice and violence, we all know that. From the sexual sadism of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ to the lurid violence and horror of Stephen King, novelists portray ugliness very well. It must all corrupt the mind, right?

Well, no. Every story, you see, has a moral.

A hundred years ago Leo Tolstoy contended that novels were ‘morally beneficial.’ Fiction, he pointed out, is dominated by the concept of poetic justice.


‘Okay now I get why eating birds is morally wrong.’ (photograph: Ollie Crafoord)

Life is not poetic or just; we know this. Just turn on the evening news. But it is important for us, as individuals and as a society, to see that it could be.

Most novels provide us endings that support the idea of poetic justice. Forever love stories and happy endings may persuade us to believe a lie; but believing the lie moves us to try and make that lie true.

So stories are vital to us. The evolution of the hero and the re-telling of epic and myth through countless generations has given us common cause. It tells us who we are and what we want to become.


‘I should read this to Dad. Maybe he’d get why mum’s so mad at him all the time.’ (photograph: Moonsun 1981)

So next time you curl up on the couch with a good book and someone tells you you’re being lazy, you can now refute them with science.

You are not reading a novel – you are doing your part to save mankind.


She was taught to obey. Now she has learned to rebel.

12 year old Isabella, a French princess marries the King of England – only to discover he has a terrible secret. Ten long years later she is in utter despair – does she submit to a lifetime of solitude and a spiritual death – or seize her destiny and take the throne of England for herself?

Isabella is just twelve years old when she marries Edward II of England. For the young princess it is love at first sight – but Edward has a terrible secret that threatens to tear their marriage – and England apart.

Who is Piers Gaveston – and why is his presence in the king’s court about to plunge England into civil war?

The young queen believes in the love songs of the troubadours and her own exalted destiny – but she finds reality very different. As she grows to a woman in the deadly maelstrom of Edward’s court, she must decide between her husband, her children, even her life – and one breath-taking gamble that will change the course of history.

This is the story of Isabella, the only woman ever to invade England – and win.

In the tradition of Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick, ISABELLA is thoroughly researched and fast paced, the little known story of the one invasion the English never talk about.

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Genre – Historical Fiction

Rating – PG-13

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