Develop Your Brain and Your Heart with Fiction

Here’s some news I feel like I’ve always known intuitively: writing fiction fine-tunes the brain.

For more than two thousand years people have insisted that reading fiction is good for you. Aristotle claimed that poetry—he meant the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which we would now call fiction—is a more serious business than history. History, he argued, tells us only what has happened, whereas fiction tells us what can happen, which can stretch our moral imaginations and give us insights into ourselves and other people. This is a strong argument for schools to continue to focus on the literary arts, not just history, science, and social studies.

But is the idea of fiction being good for you merely wishful thinking? The members of a small research group in Toronto—Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, and I—have been working on the problem. We have turned the idea into questions. In what ways might reading fiction be good for you? If it is good for you, why would this be? And what is the psychological function of art generally?

Through a series of studies, we have discovered that fiction at its best isn’t just enjoyable. It measurably enhances our abilities to empathize with other people and connect with something larger than ourselves.

My first serious novel was about a teenage girl who unwittingly conspires with her boyfriend to knock off her mother, manipulating him into thinking he is rescuing her from her terrible family. My second novel, The Pyramid of Human Growth, is a sort of romance between an introverted technocrat social worker (and lifelong procrastinator) guy and a lovable but difficult social worker gal trudging through the early years of her career, still trying to get over her early life trauma and move to the ultimate stage of marrying and childbearing. Currently I am at work on a novel about a woman’s death by overdose. It’s something we social workers get to have intimate knowledge about, for better (when we help prevent it) and for worse (when despite all the efforts made toward prevention it happens anyways). The working title (forgive the sarcasm, but it helps to keep the demons of writer’s block away) is “Twelve Easy Steps to Suicide.”

Hopefully someday all of my labors at fiction will result in some more published works. Earlier in my career I made a point of sending out my fiction and getting it published, both online and in smaller literary journals, but since having two children, I had to give up some of my goals (as I write this, I am being pestered for snacks). Anyway, even if they are not published, I take pride in working these things out in fiction — and believe that doing so helps me both personally and professionally. Viva the writing life!