Keith Oatley is a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the Univeristy of Toronto. He has some remakable things to say about the act of reading. His book, Such Stuff as Dreams suggests that when we read, our brains interpret social interactions in a work of fiction as the real thing – as far as our brains are concerned we experience real human contact and are as affected by the experience as though we were actually present with the characters in the novel.
Oatley has been quoted in the magazine Scientific American Mind (article Fiction Hones Social Skills) as saying, Reading “can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”
Most readers know how deeply they can be affected by the books they read. What they didn’t know before is that when they get involved with a fictional character, they tend to follow their actions as though they were participating in them and develop a deep empathy with their motives and feelings. Oatley suggests that reading is a form of mind-training – a course in how humans behave and react to each other. Readers tend to have better social skills because they are better aquainted with the way other people think and they are more familiar with the huge variety of human behaviour than non-readers.
As I read this I thought of just one example. I remember reading Brick Lane by Monica Ali, about the experience of a Bangladeshi woman who moved to Tower Hamlets in London to marry an older man – not usually the sort of book which interests me. As I read it however, I was drawn into the story and by the end of the book I found tremendous sympathy with Nazeem and her husband Chanu. I became engrossed on the story of how the initially isolated Nazeem was changed by the people she met in London and by the end of the book my understanding of Bangladeshi immigrant culture was so greatly enhanced that I felt real understanding of the pressures faced by immigrants who don’t even speak the language of their host nation.
Oatley’s book is based on experimental research such as setting groups of people to read a novel and then testing their social abilities before and after. But in the longer term, Oatley found that people who read were better at judging the emotional state of others and also making judgements about social relationships. Reading fiction trains people in understanding other human beings just in the same way that reading a work of non-fiction can train you in science or engineering.
The author refers to research in which students were asked to read either a novel about the plight of an Algerian woman or an essay about Algerian women’s rights. Researchers found that the readers of the novel had far more concern about the Algerian women’s rights than those who read the more newsy, third-party report.
But its the internalisation of what people read which was never quite understood before. Readers personalities are subtly changed by what they read and they become better at relating to other people, particularly those who are very different to themselves.
I can relate to this in my own reading. Books have taught me so much – how “good” people can be driven to commit a murder (Crime and Punishment – Fyodr Dostoevsky), what its like to be autistic (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – Mark Haddon), how its best to be reconciled to those who do us harm (The Railway Man – Eric Lomax) and countless other books which stay in my mind like icons on the wall of a cathedral.
Keith Oatley has more books in the pipeline and if Such Stuff as Dreams is anything to go by then we will be learning more about the transformative power of fiction and how those of us who sit in a corner with a book may be preparing ourselves far more for interaction with the real world than those who think reading is a waste of time.