One afternoon in October, I put away my research to finish a novel, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. At first, feelings of guilt assaulted me, chiding me for not being academically productive. About 15 minutes later, I had successfully buried those feelings and become deeply absorbed in Catton’s prose. Quite suddenly, I remembered why I continue to read fiction despite my reading-heavy profession: It simultaneously gives me a break from reality and improves my intellectual reasoning.
For years, the scientific community has attempted to quantify the effect of reading fiction on the brain, with mixed results. Multiple studies have shown that reading fiction can improve the brain’s core functions, particularly in promoting empathy, analytical skills, comprehension and recall.1 2 3 Others have rejected these theories, claiming that there is not enough hard evidence to defend the value of fiction to individual learning and behavior.4 Yet plenty of unquantifiable issues are inherently known in science and the humanities. As a notable example, a forthcoming article in the Social History of Medicine exposes how the World Bank instigated a “crisis of data” around clean water and public health in the 1970s because researchers had a difficult time quantifying the long-term benefits of clean water to a population’s well-being. As human beings, however, we understand that clean water is fundamental to a healthy society since it promotes sanitary habits and prevents the spread of disease. Similarly, just because scientists dispute the link between reading fiction and brain development does not mean the connection does not exist. It just means the connection might be more intuitive than data would like to believe, as I have seen throughout my own life.
Reading fiction contributes to my research in three primary ways. First, it leads to better organization and fluidity in my writing. Fictional narratives aim to transmit a storyline to an audience, which means they follow particular conventions that writers often transform but consistently follow. Authors build characters that interact with each other and the environments around them. In doing so, they pursue a plot, essentially the narrative’s abstract geography that provides the backbone of the story. This plot gives the characters a stated purpose, a reason for existing and acting in certain ways. In academic writing, the humanities and sciences may diverge in how they communicate a research narrative to an audience, but in both, the author must situate characters and spaces in particular ways to build and support their argument. Fiction provides us with new ways to organize and plot our scientific arguments with the evidence we have, offering insights into the directions a plotline can go. It can help us bend traditional organizational forms, and thus offer our readers a more interesting way to think about the material we present.
Similarly, fiction also presents new ways of considering my research subjects. Let’s take The Luminaries as an example. Set during the mid-19th-century gold rush in colonial New Zealand, Eleanor Catton’s book revolves around a cast of characters that includes wealthy white proprietors, a Maori guide, indentured Chinese miners and white prostitutes, among others. In most histories of the British Empire, characters of different races, classes and genders would ordinarily live in tension with one another as individuals in particular social and cultural circles. Whether she knows it or not, Catton works against this narrative, constructing a small colonial outpost where people of various kinds must interact with one another for significant reasons: out of love, in business negotiations, during parties or just walking in the street. While I recognize The Luminaries is a fictional work, the theories embedded in its plot unearth new questions of my research on public health in colonial South Africa. The novel particularly pushes me to understand unexpected relationships between historical actors within a particular society and culture. Science fiction, mysteries and other genres relatedly contribute to research and writing in the humanities and sciences, posing new questions and inciting fresh perspectives.
In addition to benefitting scientific thinking, fiction can improve our mental well-being. Research requires intensive reading in addition to data collection, which means that reading becomes a laborious task instead of a simple pleasure. Admittedly, I finished The Luminaries out of mental desperation — I was tired of reading historical and scientific texts on and off the screen and needed a break from watching television. After an hour and a half of reading the novel, I felt happier and refreshed, ready to return to my research-based reading with a renewed energy. The Association of Hospital and Institution Libraries has termed this mental and emotional work “bibliotherapy,” in which reading becomes a “therapeutic adjuvant in medicine and psychiatry.” They make specific recommendations for mental health providers, but individual readers can use bibliotherapy informally based on their self-knowledge.
In other words, fiction holds value for us as researchers, even if we can’t translate that value numerically into a spreadsheet. It gives us tools to organize our papers, our thoughts and our minds. It builds new connections and reinvigorates old ones. And, above all, it can be enjoyable, reminding us that reading is both a chore and a pleasure.
- E.M. Koopman and F. Hakemulder, “Effects of literature on empathy and self-reflection: A theoretical-empirical framework,” Journal of Literary Theory 9 (2015): 79–111.
- Giulia Poerio and Peter Totterdell, “The effect of fiction on the well-being of older adults: A longitudinal RCT intervention study using audiobooks,” Psychosocial Intervention 29, 1 (2020): 29–37.
- I. van Kujik, et.al., “The effect of reading a short passage of literary fiction on theory of mind: A replication of Kidd and Castano,” Collabra: Psychology 4, 1 (2013): 7.
- A notable recent source is David Dodell-Feder and Diana I. Tamir, “Fiction Reading Has Small Positive Impact on Social Cognition: A meta-analysis,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 147, 11 (2018): 1713–1727.
- Quarantine Reading Recommendations
- Summer Reading from the Hopkins History of Medicine Department
- Medicine in the Library
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