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The Benefits of Reading (Fiction)

This blog was adapted from the original Toastmasters speech.

Like many others, one of my core memories growing up was my first experience reading the Harry Potter books. I remember running home from school and being so excited to curl up on my couch, with my snack of choice (which was always BBQ Doritos chips) and rushing to turn to my page. In the 10+ years since then, I still enjoy my time sitting down and reading - albeit with a slightly healthier snack beside me.

It’s because of those first characters, that reading fiction will always have a special place in my heart. If you’re not much of a reader or only tend to read non-fiction, today I’m here to tell you about the benefits of reading fiction.

Number 1: Fiction Introduces Us to New People.

One of the most important reasons to read fiction, in my opinion, is that it introduces us to new people. We tend to surround ourselves with people who have very similar outlooks and upbringings. When we read fiction, we not only read about other people’s lives but we can experience it from their perspectives.

Researchers believe that reading puts your body into the brain of the Protagonist - making it a workout for your empathy and EQ. This effect is reflected in your brain waves as you read. If a character in your book mentions perfume or coffee, the part of our brain that is devoted to our sense of smell lights up.

A couple of years ago, I read a book called “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche which, among many other things, was about a girl who travels from Nigeria to America and not only experiences the culture shock that comes with that but also experiences racism for the first time. It’s something I will never be able to fully understand, but by reading about it from her perspective, I’m at least a step closer to doing so.

Number 2: Fiction Trains Our Attention Span.

In a world where attention spans are at the absolute minimum, finding a hobby where you can actively focus on a singular thing for hours at a time is almost a miracle. A Canadian study found that between 2000 and 2015, the average attention span dropped from twelve seconds to eight - and that was before TikTok existed.

Studies show that deep reading helps to improve our focus and ability to grasp complex ideas. So if you find yourself struggling to concentrate at work or doing day-to-day tasks, reading for pleasure or reading fiction can be a great way to strengthen those muscles. When we don’t engage in this kind of activity, those abilities tend to falter. Just as reading is workout for your empathy, it is also a workout for your attention span.

Number 3: Fiction Expands Our World.

There are a lot of fantasy haters out there - even amongst the most avid of readers. But many aspects of the genre are extremely beneficial to our brains. As mentioned, reading fiction helps us to put ourselves in the shoes of our protagonists - in any world that they belong to.

While we are reading about these new and faraway lands, our brain’s occipital lobe is activated, which is the area of our brain that processes visual information. We are essentially creating a view of the world in our heads and turning abstract concepts into reality.

You know what else that’s called? Creativity. When you read and activate these parts of your brain you're making it easier to think creatively and outside of the box. Not only that but our occipital lobe is also the area of our brain that controls our decision-making. Reading fiction is an effective way to enhance the brain’s ability to keep an open mind while processing information, a necessary skill to make effective decisions.

I read a science fiction short story recently called The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang which was about a linguist who is recruited to translate and understand the language of Aliens who have just come to Earth. While the premise sounds strange and the characters exist in an alternate reality, it taught me so many lessons about the reality we live in. One of them is the idea of language and how it not only shapes the way we communicate but also the kinds of thoughts we’re able to think. It goes to show that taking your brain into another world can lead to critical thinking about your own reality.

Number 4: Fiction Is Fun.

Here's an obvious one: reading fiction helps us have fun and destress. Just like it’s more beneficial to eat a fruit vs. candy - reading provides us with all of the entertainment we crave, but with more of the health benefits.

One could argue that watching TV or listening to music could increase our empathy and creativity in the same way reading does - and in some ways, it could. The main difference is that when we are reading, our brain has to be actively engaged. It can’t zone out in the same way it does when we put on The Office for the 500th time (although I’m guilty of that as well). Fiction allows you to practice this engagement while also providing the same escapism you get through other forms of entertainment.

So, there you have it. We’ll end it with the simple fact that it’s fun - and that there’s a book for everyone to enjoy. All you need to do is find the right one for you, turn the page, and get started.

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