One of my favourite paintings is The New Novel, by Winslow Homer, showing a woman lying on her side in a field of clover, enthralled by the book she holds. For me, it captures the very essence of reading. The escape. Solitary and personal, the act of reading strikes us as being one of the least interactive things we do, and yet we are coming to understand that reading, and especially reading fiction, is an activity that may hone skills vital to relating to others.
In a recent study conducted by University of Toronto psychologists, subjects who read a short story in The New Yorker had higher scores on social reasoning tests than those who had read an essay from the same magazine. The researchers concluded that there was something in the experience of reading fiction that made the subjects more empathetic (or at least take a test more empathetically). The study provided some proof for what has often been intuitively argued: Fiction is, in some very important ways, good for us.
Why fiction is good for us is less clear. Some have argued that fiction benefits us by granting us a form of exposure to situations and personalities, that the reader's role is akin to that of an observer, and through reading we can rehearse our responses to the complicated emotional situations that lie ahead. Fiction gives us guidance.
This traditional view - of the reader viewing the material with the detachment of an anthropologist studying a newly discovered Amazon tribe - seems to me not only superficial, but wrong. If this were the case, the lessons learned by reading a fictional story could just as easily be gleaned by reading a well-written essay or a piece of non-fiction; according to this most recent study, that just doesn't seem to be the case.
Fiction's strength is that it is not a detached but an immersive experience: We don't observe and adjudicate the facts in fiction, we enter the skin of the protagonists, walking in their shoes and coming to understand their intentions, feeling their happiness and sorrow. From the moment Mr. Darcy is overheard saying "she is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me," there is an army of readers following along with Elizabeth Bennet, fully invested in the outcome of her journey, precisely because we feel not only how the insult wounds her, but also how dearly she does not want that wound to show. The experience is internalized in a way that non-fictional accounts simply cannot achieve.
Long after the words of a fictional passage are forgotten, the experience is remembered. We remember Herzog's anger and disillusionment, Pi Patel's fear and Molly Bloom's throes. The words have become the experience and, in a way, the character's experience has become our experience. We have lived it too.
How does this happen? In her outstanding book Why We Read Fiction, literary theorist Lisa Zunshine relates the act of reading fiction to our ability and desire to understand the minds of others. Developmental psychologists refer to this ability as "theory of mind," a capacity most of us develop in early childhood. It is essentially an understanding that other beings have intentions and mental states apart from our own, and it is a short jump from this to attributing mental states to others (the evolutionary importance of being able to attribute mental states, and from there to possibly predict the behaviour of others, is obvious).
Zunshine, who is part of a growing school of cognitive literary theorists, goes so far as to describe the novel as a "sustained theory of mind exercise." As we read the multilayered intentionalities of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, we not only experience complex and contingent mental states, but we evaluate them as well, and as the narrative moves forward, we use our skills as mind readers, constantly testing our hypotheses about this fictional world and its experimental personalities.
Using Nabokov's Pale Fire as an example, Zunshine relates how severely our theory-of-mind abilities can be tested and how ably we respond when she describes the creeping unease and perverse thrill, well known to any reader, that come with the unmasking of an unreliable narrator. The ambiguities and psychological nuances that characterize fiction provide an unrivalled training ground for our abilities as readers of mental states.
A taste for fiction is sadly no guarantee of empathy; the list of highly cultured and well-read despots is depressingly long. Similarly, empathy's origins are deeper, and its existence and practice far wider, than the printed page. The sophisticated social skills honed in the act of reading may be nothing more than a fortuitous side effect, and this doesn't trouble me one bit. We all have books on our bedside table that we think we should read to "improve" ourselves. The fact that these books remain resiliently unread, or that if they are opened at all, our progress through them is often the literary equivalent of a Bataan Death March, seems to me proof enough that we read for something other than purely ennobling reasons.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett used the term "epistemic hunger" to describe the central nervous system's insatiable appetite for information (often in the form of narrative), an appetite that frequently exceeds the experiences of our own lives. Fiction is the remedy for that hunger, the opportunity to experience a consciousness unconstrained by era, or gender, or our own particular biases.
Fiction offers the transformative experience of getting out of our heads and into the head of "the other." And from that privileged vantage point, anything is possible. Perhaps even the chance to see ourselves more clearly.
Liam Durcan is a writer whose most recent book is the novel Garcia's Heart. He lives in Montreal with his family and works as a neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Hospital.