For many people, reading fiction or memoirs may seem like a frivolous past-time. For our productivity-obsessed culture, reading books on business or learning how to operate new technologies may seem like a better use of our time.
While non-fiction may provide you with tools for your life, fiction teaches us how to use those tools.
Humans evolved alongside mythology, archetypes, and stories because they help us make sense of a complex and changing world. Without these guiding narratives, we would be entirely overwhelmed by the overabundance of information in the world.
Reading stories is a great way to expand your capacity to hold two contradictory truths, because there are no right answers in fiction—just as there are no right answers in life.
One of the most incredible aspects about reading stories is the way it engages your brain. The simple act of reading this page activates your temporal lobe, frontal lobe, angular and supramarginal gyrus, and actually increases the white matter pathways that connect the different parts of your brain. When you read sensory words, like lavender, soap, velvet, or lemon, your brain will activate as if you are actually smelling, tasting, or touching those items. This phenomenon of cognitively experiencing the words you read on the page is known as ’embodied cognition’.
Just as a flight simulator allows a pilot to navigate a variety of conditions without ever leaving the ground, reading allows us to simulate the lives and experiences of others.
Those imagined experiences have a tangible impact. A study measuring tennis players’ performances found that just by imagining they were playing beforehand, players were able to induce a measurable increase in their performance. This experiment on the power of cognitive embodiment has incredible implications on the power of imagery and the brain. Through the simple act of reading, your brain expands—improving your cognitive and emotional capacities.
Stories are gateways into new worlds. One of my favorite reading experiences was Miss Iceland by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir. I know very little about modern Icelandic culture, much less what it was like being a female poet in the 1960s. The book is a beautiful invitation into a world previously unknown to me, yet with relatable challenges and emotions.
In her memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, Ashley C. Ford invites the reader into her childhood thoughts and feelings, how she dealt with childhood trauma, and how she learned to accept her experiences and herself to become the person who she is today. I found it an incredibly powerful experience to be immersed in a childhood other than my own and to learn from her life experiences.
When you spend more time reading, the benefits may not be easy to identify. But overtime, and with the right selection of stories, reading expands our mind, makes us more creative, and makes an entire universe of experiences possible that we otherwise may have never known.