Tangible Development Blog

Life is Like Fiction


You might feel a pang of guilt when you flip open your Kindle and dive into some fiction instead of the latest business best-seller. Don’t. It turns out that the descriptive prose you’re reading is as good as having the experience yourself – at least as far as your brain is concerned. And that’s a great thing for creativity.

MRI studies have shown that when you read descriptive prose that involves texture, those areas of your brain go into action, just as if you were doing the touching. Same thing goes for smell and motion. Read about kicking a ball or grasping a book and the respective motor areas of your brain activate. Author Annie Murphy Paul summarized these fascinating findings in her New York Times op-ed on March 18.

This is all interesting, but the thing that strikes me most is that the brain doesn’t care if you’re reading about an experience or if you’re actually having it. The same areas of the brain light up.  That’s why reading engrossing fiction can really transport you. Why is this good for creativity?

  • More experiences give you more perspectives – Since creativity involves finding new relationships, linkages, and connections, the more perspectives you bring to the table the better.  Maybe you don’t need to actually need to sail around the world solo. Read a vivid account and you’ll gain the same brain experience.
  • Social training – Paul explains that your brain treats the fictional social interactions is just like real ones. So reading about different social situations is exposure to different ways of handling them.
  • Better understanding – Studies have also shown that people who read lots of fiction seem to be better at understanding others, empathizing, and seeing the situation from their perspective. Again, more perspectives mean more ways to approach a challenge.

The same improved understanding was found among children who had stories read to them. And, watching movies had the same effect – but not watching television.


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