Fiction as a Simulation of Life (Fiction on the Brain, Part II)


Pride and Prejudice and bibliotherapy
Can Pride and Prejudice be a simulation of real life to learn from and apply to our own lives and relationships?

For the second part of my Fiction on the Brain series, I’ve decided to focus on Dr Oately’s fascinating idea of fiction as a ‘simulation’ of life and the world around us.

This concept, which he discusses in Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, sheds much light on how we can use reading as a tool for self-improvement, wellbeing, and understanding the world a little better. Therefore, I think it’s well worth us taking a look at his theory and considering how it can apply to our own lives and reading habits.

Generally we think of simulations in terms of computers or training equipment. As Oatley does, let’s consider the example of flight simulators for pilots.

Pilots use simulators to prepare for flight in a safe, controlled way

Firstly, a pilot might use a flight simulator to experience flying before actually doing it himself, preventing both himself and others from unnecessary risk before he has the skills required.

Secondly, by using a flight simulator, a pilot can experience a wider range of situations than he would experience on the average flight. The pilot can intentionally choose to develop skills that need to be strengthened, and practise safety in a secure and risk-free environment.

All in all, the simulator prepares the pilot for the real thing, and strengthens skills that he can transfer to flying an actual plane.

How do flight simulators relate to reading fiction?


In literature we can find almost every feeling, situation and problem that a person could be facing; it’s rare to be feeling or experiencing something that isn’t somewhere in a book.

Fiction, essentially, is a simulation of life, relationships, selfhood and group interaction. Think of Anna Pavlovna’s soirée which opens Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Oatley’s example of the Meryton Assembly Room dance in Pride and Prejudice.

Oatley asks: if fiction can be seen as a simulation, do people who read more of it perceive social interactions better than non-readers (or non-fiction readers)?

After research into the Mind in the Eyes Test by Raymond Mar and his colleagues (in which participants have to select the most applicable mental state after looking at photographs of people’s eyes), alongside the Interpersonal Perception Test, the answer is essentially: yes.

Reading fiction makes navigating reality and social situations easier for us

The more fiction people read, the better they seemed to be at the Mind in the Eyes Test (and the Interpersonal Perception Test too, although not with such strong results). Even when the researchers controlled personality types and individual differences, the results didn’t change.

After all, fiction gets us thinking about the social world by opening up the worlds of other characters and their relationships with others. In summary, we can say that reading fiction tends to help us develop our ability to make models of others and ourselves and to navigate the social world.

This means you can read fiction to…

A Thousand Splendid Suns to open up new worlds in fiction
Fiction opens up new worlds and
perspectives for us to experience, as in
A Thousand Splendid Suns.
  • Better understand what others think and feel, whether in a one-off encounter (bumping into someone at the shop), or in longer-term relationships.
  • Get better at group interactions, such as parties and meetings at work, by seeing how characters go about it first.
  • Get to know yourself by comparing yourself to characters that you admire (or despise).
  • Envisage a different, multi-cultural and more equal society to the one you currently live in (getting inside the role of a third world citizen, someone of the opposite sex, or a marginalised immigrant, for instance).

Do you want to get better at something, improve your social skills or understand other people more? Try fiction first!



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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at

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