This is a heavy-duty academic article which was forwarded to us by a friend of Marcellus. It took us a bit of time to figure out the number crunching contained in the article but we persisted because of the nature of the hypothesis being tested i.e. does reading fiction confer any benefit upon the reader? To quote the authors, Carney & Robertson: “Does reading fiction improve mental health and well-being? We present the results of five studies that evaluated the impact of five forms of exposure to fiction. These included the effects of recalling reading fiction, of being prescribed fiction, of discussing fiction relative to non-fiction, and of discussing literary fiction relative to best-seller fiction. The first three studies directly recruited participants; the final two relied on scraped social media data from Reddit and Twitter.”

So what do the authors find? “Results show that fiction can have a positive impact on measures of mood and emotion, but that a process of mnemonic or cognitive consolidation is required first: exposure to fiction does not, on its own, have an immediate impact on well-being.”

What this means is that locking yourself in a quiet place and reading by yourself does not confer any benefit to you (the reader): “At the broadest level, the implication of the five studies is to disconfirm what we might term the ‘pharmaceutical’ model of creative bibliotherapy. This is the view that fiction, in virtue of some intrinsic property, has salutary effects on well-being, and can thus be dose-prescribed in much the same way as, say, an antidepressant or a vitamin supplement. Though no authoritative proponent of creative bibliotherapy holds to so simplistic a view as this, it is nevertheless the intuition behind journalistic claims that ‘reading strengthens your brain’, or that ‘books may have as many health benefits as running or eating broccoli’. But whether one subscribes to the pharmaceutical view or not, our results suggest that direct exposure to fiction does not seem to confer any measurable benefit in the time adjacent to exposure”

However, reading, understanding what you are reading and the sharing that knowledge/insights with others and discussing others’ insights on the same book is beneficial for your brain at many levels. Therefore, the big takeaway is that reading – which appear to be a solitary activity – is actually useful only when it becomes a social activity:

“What does seem to have an effect, however, are modes of presentation that require indirect engagement with fiction. Study 1 showed this with respect to the effect of recalling reading fiction, Study 4 indicates that discussing books has more salutary effects than discussing non-book-related topics, and Study 5 gives evidence that discussing literary fiction has more positive effects than best-seller fiction. What is common in all cases is an opportunity to reflect on the material that has been read, whether by way of ordinary mnemonic integration or as a necessary preliminary to engaging with the opinions of others. And even in the case of mnemonic integration, this result was demonstrated only for classic literary texts that are the subject of sustained cultural discussion—potentially allowing that there is a social component at work here, too”

One of the more intriguing questions the authors explore is “why does fiction exist at all? “That fiction may be intrinsically social arises from evolutionary arguments concerning its utility. One of the more puzzling aspects of fiction from an evolutionary perspective has always been that it should exist at all. Fiction not alone communicates explicitly false information—it does so in a way that uses up temporal, cognitive, and material resources, such as by causing us to care about characters that do not, and often could not, exist. Known as the paradox of fiction, this problem has directly or indirectly exercised a number of evolutionary and cognitive theorists. One proposed solution is that stories exist as a cultural tool for facilitating large-group living. In this view, the performance and discussion of fictional narratives can create prosocial dispositions by activating shared frames of reference and a collective orientation towards the future. In Terence Cave’s words, ‘literature promotes its own downstream conversation, where it becomes mingled with the everyday, the social, the ethical, the political’. Where this potentially impacts on mood state is through the opioid system.”

In short, reading fiction brings us closer to each other. It allows us to get to know each other better through our shared discussions about books we have read. Obviously, societies in which reading is absent as a social activity are unable to reap the benefits of reading as a cultural glue.

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