Monday, 30 March 2009

What's the point of fiction?

I remember the first book I ever read. It was called the Little Wooden Horse and when I finished it I cried for days. I was so utterly absorbed I couldn't bear for it to be over.

It was only when my Mum pointed out that I really should be working harder on my A levels that I finally pulled myself together.

I jest of course. But when I was young I really did like books. No, I loved them, and my Mum was a librarian. That's like being a crack addict and having a dealer Mum.

As I grew older I read less and less fiction and more and more non-fiction, mainly because I was so anxious to 'be efficient' and to 'get ahead' that I thought of fiction as a waste of time.

But now psychology tells us that it's my attitude that's a waste of time. Recent research indicates that reading fiction allows us to simulate experiences, situations and emotions so that we can try them out, and therefore learn faster than we would through our own experiences alone. Much as a pilot learns to fly by simulating flight, so we learn by simulating life through fiction and art.

Mar (2007) tested this hypothesis. After randomly assigning people to read either a fiction or non-fiction piece of literature, those reading the fiction piece scored higher on a test of social reasoning, although there were no differences between the conditions on a test of analytical reasoning. Fiction, it seems, is the mind's flight simulator, and I'm off to the library to re-simulate all those situations experienced by The Little Wood Horse.

Source: The Psychologist, vol 21, Prof Keith Oatley.

1 comment:

Dan said...

I always wondered about fiction: