Reality Skimming
15Feb/12Off

Stimulus/Response: Reading Fiction Builds Social Skills

Thinking and feeling with characters can "strength social ties and even change your personality." - Keith Oatley

Lynda WilliamsLynda Williams is the author of the Okal Rel Saga, published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Part 7: Healer's Sword arrives in 2012. Lynda's work features moral dilemmas in a character-driven, multi-cultural setting with radically different attitudes to sex and social control surrounding space warfare and bio-science.

In The Mind of Others by Keith Oatley

Stimulus

Keith Oatley's article "In the Minds of Others" (Scientific American) describes research on how "getting into character" by reading fiction develops social skills valuable in dealing with others in real life.

Response

Years ago, it occurred to me that the reason many people failed to find reading as rich an experience as watching a movie or playing a video game, was because they couldn't construct the world of a novel on their personal "brain ware" as well as I could, so the magic didn't happen for them. I have still never met a video game that moved me like a good novel. And while movies trump verbal descriptions, words trump images at allowing a reader to share the complex emotional life of a character and their relationships to the social world. A comment by a video gaming fanatic clarified the situation for me. It was at some conference or other, and he was defending the narrative potential of his preferred form of entertainment: "The heroine has a father," he told me. There was a lot more, but in essence his idea of a story was a catalog of facts used as a backdrop for the action. Which is fine for gamers who appreciate a little atmosphere, but it irks me when the "deaf" -- so to speak -- see fit to argue that a two-penny whistle is as good as a symphony orchestra.

In his Scientific American article, “In the Minds of Others”, Keith Oatley describes what readers do as hosting social simulations in which their brains practice the hard work of seeing the world from another person’s point of view. Readers literally feel with the characters they are reading about, as evidenced not only by post-test experiments but MRI brain scans.

“Reading fiction can strengthen your social ties and even change your personality,” is the article’s subheading. I think that’s a strong message for authors. And one that bears thinking about carefully.

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