We know that great books can change our minds and our lives in many ways.
Purely at a physical level neuroscientists have shown that reading novels may boost brain connectivity.
At the emotional level, reading literary fiction has been shown to increase our ‘theory of mind’: our ability to simulate the minds of others and empathise with them (Kidd & Castano, 2013).
Now, here is philosopher and popular author Alain de Botton, exploring four psychological benefits of reading.
Here is an edited transcript of the video:
“1. It saves you time
Of course, it looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is ultimately the greatest time-saver, for it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly.
Literature is the greatest ‘reality simulator’, a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you could ever directly witness.
It lets you – safely: that’s crucial – see what it’s like to get divorced.
Or kill someone and feel remorseful.
Or chuck in your job and take off to the desert.
Or make a terrible mistake while leading your country.
It lets you speed up time: in order to see the arc of a life from childhood old age.
It gives you the keys to the palace, and to countless bedrooms, so you can assess your life in relation to that of others.
2. It makes you nicer
Literature performs the basic magic of showing us what things look like from someone else’s point of view.
It allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t.
And it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.
Literature typically stands opposed to the dominant value system, the one that rewards money and power.
Writers are on the other side, they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but that can’t afford airtime in a commercialised, status-conscious and cynical world.
3. It’s a cure for loneliness
We are weirder than we’re allowed to admit.
We often can’t say what’s really on our minds.
But in books, we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events are actually like, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for.
In the best books it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves.
They find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives: the light on a summer morning, the anxiety we felt at the gathering, the sensations of a first kiss, the envy when a friend told us of their new business, the longing we experienced on the train, looking at the profile of another passenger we never dare to speak to.
Writers open our hearts and minds – and give us maps to our own selves so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia and persecution.
4. It prepares you for failure
All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failing, of messing up…
Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure.
Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure.
In one way or another, a great many novels, plays and poems are about people who’ve messed up, people who slept with mum by mistake, who let down their partner, or who died after running up some debts on shopping sprees.
If the media got to them, they’d make mincemeat out of them.
But great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media.
They evoke pity for the hero and fear for ourselves based on a new sense of how near we all are to destroying our own lives.[…]
Literature deserves its prestige for one reason above all others: because it’s a tool to help us live and die with a little more wisdom, goodness and sanity.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Image credit: School of Life