The psychology of fiction: why reading transforms us

As a psychologist who studies personality development, one of Maja Djikic’s most important insights into what it means to be human is this: Our optimal state is one of continuous growth. Perhaps by some intelligent design, life insists on treating us to a feast of occasions (sweet and bitter) to stimulate growth. We feel transformed through our experiences, our connections, our passions.

Then there is literature.

The mechanism behind the transformative powers of fiction

The path from the page to the heart is far from easy. It’s not that when we get to the last word of a book, we transform into kinder, wiser versions of ourselves. “The journey itself is my home,” Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho wrote of our fleeting existence. It seems that the journey itself is also where the magic of storytelling lies.

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Isn’t that why we easily shake hands with strangers and surrender to the decree of their imaginary destinies?

Isn’t that why we promise to follow our protagonists across continents and centuries, to fall and triumph with them, to love, to cry, to learn with them?

When we let go of his hands, two things are certain: we are no longer strangers; something within us has stirred. It could just be a tremor, like a splash of dancing snowflakes in a snow globe. It could also be a snow storm. This rearrangement, whatever form it takes, is an integral component of the transformative powers of fiction.

“Before a change, there is usually a dysregulation or a period of instability caused by life events,” explains Djikic. “Good fiction creates this instability in a safe and controlled environment. If we are ripe for growth, it provides a smoother path to transformation.”

Is sweetness it is due in part to the literary style of fiction as an art form. “Fiction is not a photograph,” says Djikic, who has been exploring the psychology of fiction at the University of Toronto. “Rather, it is a metaphorical distillation of human behavior.” A work of fiction relies on non-direct communication to navigate to new worlds. “But it doesn’t tell us where and how to land,” says Djikic, “because only you know where you need to grow.” If the writer decides the fate of his heroes and villains, we as readers have the final say on how the story resonates between the lines of our own lives.

According to Djikic, the mechanism behind the transformative potential of fiction involves a two-step process: an exit and a simulation.

“When we read fiction, we are asked to temporarily step out of our identities and mentally step into different ones. Often the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves can keep us from growing. Getting out of our stories allows us to enter a state of potentiality that we often see in children, when we tell them ‘You can be anything!As adults, our own narratives become more rigid. The invitation to put aside our identities and enter a space where we can simulate different ways of being can already be transformative. Then, by exploring other minds, we are given the opportunity to practice experiencing different emotions, thoughts, and behaviors than we otherwise experience. When you re-engage with the story and the characters after you’ve finished reading a book, that’s when growth happens.”

Here are Dr. Djikic’s five potential avenues for self-development through fiction:

1. Empathy

Empathy is a multidimensional construct that includes the ability to infer the mental states of others and to experience the emotions that others feel. When we read fiction, we are practicing reading other minds. This simulation process in which readers try to understand the characters’ motives, thoughts, and emotions can improve cognitive empathy. As a key aspect of emotional intelligence, cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. Cognitive empathy can be developed throughout our lives, and reading fiction is one way to do it.

2. Social skills

Social skills involve the willingness to do something with our knowledge about what other people think and feel in order to improve social interactions. For example, if as a host we notice that there is tension between the guests, we could intervene to improve their communication. Based on our understanding of the mental states of others, we can discover how being with others makes our interactions more authentic and genuine. Cognitive empathy, therefore, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for good social skills. We still have to put it into practice. As novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley has written: “If fiction is a simulation of the social world, one can become more adept at that world by engaging with more fiction.”

3. Learn about ourselves

Isn’t contrast the most wonderful way to learn? Often we are not aware of our tendencies and patterns until we see them in contrast to other lives and other experiences. Fiction provides this opportunity, as a result, helping us to learn more about our own idiosyncrasies. When stories transport us to different worlds, they not only introduce us to a multitude of ways of living and being, but we can also recognize how tied we are to our own identities. Furthermore, reading about others can bring us face to face with our common humanity, as we realize that despite our vast differences, humans everywhere care about similar things.

4. Personality

Personality refers to any stable way we interact with the world. However, personality is not always static and predetermined. Instead, it is often reinforced by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, which can limit us. Fiction can help us mentally break out of these self-narratives and practice being in a state where we are not bound by broad generalizations about ourselves. Reading teaches us nuance and complexity not only about the world but also about the personalities that live in the world. As a result, we can become more fluid in the way we see ourselves. For example, in our research, we found that after reading fiction, people ended up with somewhat different ideas about their personalities compared to their initial self-reports. It’s almost as if reading about other characters loosened their stories’ restrictions on their own traits and allowed for more fluctuations in what they thought they might be.

5. Cognitive skills

As a characteristic of information processing, cognitive closure refers to the state in which the individual has made a decision about something, the ambiguity is removed, and they have reached a conclusion based on their understanding of the situation. People vary in their need for an answer, none response, to finish further processing of the information. A high need for cognitive closure can have a negative effect on various information processing strategies, including creativity. Our findings show that reading fiction can reduce the need for cognitive closure and help keep the mind open. In turn, an open mind can improve thinking and creativity, because it helps prevent premature cognitive shutdown.

Books offer us many rewards as there are reasons to read them. Knowing that the pages we keep turning may reveal a masterclass in the human experience that could transform our own lives is comforting and exhilarating at the same time. As well as the remarkable stories themselves.

Many thanks to Maja Djikic for her time and insights. Maja Djikic is Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management and Director of the Self-Development Laboratory at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.

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