|Woman Reading in a Garden by Mary Cassatt|
Why do we enjoy reading fiction? It seems like a simple question to answer; a question that’s not really worth asking at all, perhaps. However, Keith Oatley’s fascinating Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction doesn’t leave such matters unturned.
I’ve explored Oatley’s ideas before (here and in my ebook), and his superb interpretations of fiction and psychology couldn’t be more interesting. Because of this, I’ve decided to write a series of articles – let’s call it Fiction on the Brain – to explore the theories and research on the links between fiction and the brain.
Through my weekly instalments, I’ll aim to make the psychology of reading as accessible as possible to you, touching on issues such as: how fiction can improve our social skills, why reading can be good for us, and how literature moves us emotionally.
To start with, let’s consider why we enjoy reading fiction in the first place.
The main reasons considered by Oatley include:
- Fiction is the natural transition from childhood play. Both play and fiction are activities that we can engage with and express wishes through.
- Exploration is in our genes, and fiction is a superb way to use these detective skills of ours.
- Our genes make play, and therefore reading fiction, enjoyable because they help us be interactive and manage our emotions.
- We do what we’re good at, and we’re naturally good at considering the perspectives of others and getting inside a new role.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold
Fry was the 9th bestseller last year.
Could the reason be in our genes?
1. Exchanging childhood play for fiction
During childhood, we probably all wished to be something else: a fairy, an astronaut, or perhaps a grown-up. Oatley describes how childhood play is an expression of wishes: wishing to be someone else and then pretending to be this person.
Rather than giving it up as we grow up, our expression of wishes transmutates. Oatley uses a teaching by Freud to explain this: we generally don’t give up our pleasures; rather, we exchange them for something equally pleasurable.
In this case, as we bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, we exchange childhood play for activities that derive from it, such as fiction, sports and the arts. When reading a novel, we can identify with a protagonist and take on their role (just like we did during childhood play).
2. Maybe it’s in our genes
Exploration is pretty important, too, and we could even say that children play because it’s hardwired in our brains. After all, by exploring we have discovered new places, created life-changing inventions, and become healthier and stronger people.
As we grow older and stop playing around in the childlike sense, we explore in new ways. One way of letting our inner-explorer loose is by reading fiction.
|The Fault in Our Stars was the 17th
bestseller of 2013. Could the friendships
we form with its characters be key to this?
3. We’re social creatures
As we enjoy fiction, we form symbolic friendships with characters and narrators. We learn from their decisions and mistakes, and we may even adopt their dreams for ourselves.
4. We like to consider the perspectives of others
An author will give us some details about a character, but there’s much left unsaid (particularly, for instance, in detective fiction such as the Sherlock Holmes stories). To remedy this, we enter into what Oatley describes as our ‘theory-of-mind processes’ (skills that we’ve been developing since our early years of play), and, in entering the minds of others, we edge towards intimacy with them.
|Woman Reading in a Forest by Gyula Benczúr (1875)|
The ideas mentioned in this post are sourced from:
Oatley, Keith. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Keep tuned for more Fiction on the Brain, an article about Robert Frost, and to see whether I finish Tolstoy’s major works before my 21st birthday.
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