Getting used to reading narratives turns out to have short-and long-term effects on the connectivity in the brain. It is not just entertainment, rather it stands for a workout. The brain works like a muscle and the more you read the more you get used to empathising and sympathising with other people. During her TEDx talk “Why Reading Matters”, Rita Carter reveals that, as far as the evidence coming from modern neuroscience is concerned, reading fiction makes people more imaginative, improves their memory and enhances their social skills.

How does our brain work during reading?

Reading is a complex skill that requires to be taught. It activates both hemispheres of the brain, thereby involving different cognitive processes, such as attention, abstract reasoning, predicting, problem-solving, memory, retrieval of vocabulary, verbal, and non-verbal intelligence. As regards Bloom’s taxonomy, reading begins with the visual-phonological processing and content comprehension but then it requires higher levels of understanding, such as critical interpretation and evaluation. Our brains are naturally hard-wired to speak. As a matter of fact, children begin making speech sounds regardless of their cultural backgrounds. On the other hand, reading is not natural, and it requires to be learned. Decoding, comprehension and interpretation involve a more holistic experience in creating connections and individual cognitive pathways.

That is why by reading fiction you are not only learning what the character is experiencing but you are experiencing and reporting the character’s emotions.

How does reading boost our Emotional Intelligence (EI)?

Besides cognitive intelligence, Goleman (1995) identifies EI as the ability to understand and manage our own emotions, recognise the feelings of others and improve our social relationships. For this purpose, reading fiction deals with simulations and their meaning in psychological terms. By entering the simulation, we identify with fiction’s characters, we recognise their emotions as if they were ours and we come to grips with moral dilemmas. Oatley argues that, just like people spend time in a flight simulator in order to learn to fly, people who are engaged with reading fiction are required to predict their character’s actions, infer their plans and goals, build hypotheses and sometimes disrupt them. Being involved in a continuous set of simulations of the what-ifs of social life accustoms us to stepping out of our head and reading things from the perspective of others. It is concerned with the theory of mind, namely the social-cognitive ability to attribute mental states, feelings and desires to other people. Provided that self-awareness and empathy contribute to better nurturing social life, there is evidence that people who spend time reading are more socially skilled than people who do not.

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you are not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong. (F. S. Fitzgerald)

Claudia Melcarne

Keith Oatley, The mind’s flight simulator:’s_flight_simulator, 2008
Rita Carter, TEDx talk “Why Reading Matters”, February 2018
Siusana Kweldju, Research Findings: How the Brain Works During Reading: PASAA Volume 50 July – December 2015.