Why do we read fiction?

Fiction is a strange beast when you think about it. Made-up people in made-up worlds doing made-up things, and yet they have the power to make us laugh, cry, think, flinch, or just go to bed early to catch the next few chapters of their adventures. My own compulsion to read has puzzled me for a long time. I know I don’t feel right if I haven’t got a good book on the go. It doesn’t have to be fiction. I’m not exclusive (although, I admit, most of the time I am).

Why do we read fiction? Escapism, entertainment, sanctuary? If you are anything like me, you might feel there is something necessary about it, but perhaps like me also, you feel it instinctively though you’d be hard pushed to explain exactly what it is. Research on the psychology of reading fiction suggests that it is good for us, that it might make us more empathic, that by inhabiting different characters we can test our own psychological and emotional response to situations that we might never find ourselves in – a simulation of another life if you like – but none of these have ever felt like a satisfactory explanation to me.

No doubt there is some sort of gratification process involved in understanding complex plots or deciphering other people’s motivations but, again, these theories only partly resonate with me. Certainly there is more to reading fiction than being transported to a different time or place, or simply ‘imaging’ the content, as Steven Davies describes it, although intriguingly, brain studies demonstrate that when we imagine physical movements the same areas of the brain are stimulated as when we carry out the actual movement (a technique well known to sports psychologists). Perhaps this is the reason that scenes involving the movement of the characters, plays of light and dark, shadows and reflections build strong mental pictures.

Even when all these ideas are added together, they still don’t touch on that instinctive need I’ve had difficulty pinning down. I’m pretty sure there is something fundamental and unique going on in the brain when we let our imaginations run with a story. Maria Popova reviews some of the literature around this in her Brainpickings post with Neil Gaiman. And some of the ideas shared in a panel discussion a few years ago at the University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas touch on this too.

‘we’re evolutionarily hardwired to look for patterns, for meaning; we crave narrative’

‘fiction is a skilled dreaming’

 (Trevor Byrne, novelist)

‘fiction lets us press pause, rewind, zoom in, zoom out; it creates a space for us to think ourselves and our world in novel ways – to be titillated, frightened, disgusted, amused and surprised – often at ourselves – and meaningfully and distinctly from television or film, have significant control over that experience, to work with the author rather than be worked on by the author’

(Malachi Mackintosh, Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge)


Books in the forest

These ideas of dreaming, day-dreaming, letting your mind wander, testing connections and hypotheses, making random, serendipitous associations while not fully conscious came up recently as a major theme in a (non-fiction) book I read. In Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, he describes (among other things) the latest research on dreaming and how it is considered critical for refining pathways between neurones, for laying down memories, for processing emotions and a whole host of other measures.

It strikes me that reading may result in similar effects. Reading fiction and the intense imagining that takes place feels to me like a state of semi-consciousness. Or rather, a partial awareness of the outside world. How many times have you been immersed in a book and not heard someone ask you a question? I can’t tell you the number of times being lost in a book has got me in to trouble. Of course, I have no scientific proof for this, just a hunch that my reading brain feels more similar to my dreaming brain than to my thoughtful wakeful one.

And you? How would you answer the question ‘Why do you read fiction?’?



Keith Oatley, ‘Fiction and its study as gateways to the mind’, Scientific Study of Literature, 1:1 (2011), 153–164.

Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006) p. 17. <books.google.fr/books?isbn=0814210287> [accessed 12 June 2013].

Steven Davies, ‘Responding Emotionally to Fictions’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 67 (2009), 269–284.

Image Credits

Featured image by Alejandro Escamilla on Unsplash

Photo Books in the Forest by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash


Author: Helen M Taylor

Author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

6 thoughts on “Why do we read fiction?”

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