Table of Contents

  1. Definition
  2. Origins
  3. Anti-Novel Campaigns
  4. Early Novels
  5. Benefits of Reading Novels


The novel is a worldwide cultural instrument that helped redefine the time and space where we live, the way we speak and talk, how we feel, and what we do.

According to the dictionary, a novel is:

  1. a fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.
  2. the literary genre represented by novels.

A novel (from French “nouvelle” and Italian “novella,” which mean new) is an extended, generally fictional narrative in prose. Until the 18th century, the word referred specifically to short fictions of love and intrigue as opposed to romances, which were epic-length works about love and adventure. During the 18th century, the novel adopted features of the old romance and became one of the major literary genres.


Novels as we know them began in England in the early 1700s. However, there were some novel prototypes prior to this period, such as:

  • Sir Thomas Malroy’s Le Mort d’Artur (1485)
  • Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1588)
  • John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
  • Aphra Behn’s Oronooko, or The Royal Slave (1688)

The dominant genre in world literature, the novel is a relatively young form of imaginative writing. Only about 250 years old in England—and embattled from the start— its rise to pre-eminence has been striking. After sparse beginnings in 17th century England, novels grew exponentially in production by the 18th century and in the 19th century became the primary form of popular entertainment.

The rise of the novel coincides with the rise of the middle classes in Western Europe. Profound social and economic changes brought the novel into popular prominence:

  • advances in the technology of printing made written texts available to a growing population of readers.
  • changes in modes of distribution and in literacy rates brought books and pamphlets to populations excluded from education, such as working-class men and women.
  • authors became free agents in the literary marketplace, dependent on popular sales for success and sustenance, reflecting the values of a middle-class readership.


Early novels were dedicated to realism. Realism and drama of individual consciousness had precedence over external drama. The focus was on the experience of the individual as subject matter. Novels explored individual consciousness and perception. Realism was synonymous with veracity and denial of functionality. The descriptions featured “photographic” attention to detail  (verisimilitude). Early novelists rejected the fabulous imaginings and idealism of romances.

Early novelists made significant choices in subject matter. They wanted the appearance of probability in character, setting, and event and logical cause-and-effect sequencing. The focused on solidity of detail in order to achieve the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. More novels began to feature middle-class protagonists.

Anti-Novel Campaigns

Attacks on the new genre identified it with French romance, derided it as a sensationalistic import, and considered it antithetical to English values. Some of the objections to novels were:

  • Novels have a great impact on the unconscious mind of readers. Readers may imitate wrong and irrational ideas about love, life, and other aspects of life. Also, it may develop certain stereotypes in the mind of readers.
  • Novels were believed to have its roots in French romance, thus it was incompatible with English ethics. Many novelists including Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn were attacked as their prose was based on French style.
  • It was and still considered as a waste of time. People were spending most of their spare time reading novels. Also, it diverts people from living in reality and encourages them to sail in the imaginary world. It affects the reader physically as the reader sits for hours without any physical activity.
  • As the novels were written in simple prose, unlike poetry, which requires skill and creative illumination, there was a crowd of unskilled writers who interiorized their status. The content produced by this undesirable crowd was of poor quality and thus created a bad reputation for the genre.
  • Women were and still are perceived as sensitive, weaker, and more emotional, thus they were more exposed to bad influence and may engage in immoral activities. Also, some novels fuelled this approach as they exhibited young girls searching for love. Novel reading was even considered a symptom of hysteria in women.

As a result, novels that displayed non-romantic features were considered more legitimate. The novel as a genre developed and was valued according to these features.

Jane Austen’s Defense of the Novel

In Jane Austen’s era, novels were often depreciated as trash; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opinion was that “where the reading of novels prevails as a habit, it occasions in time the entire destruction of the powers of the mind”. But Jane Austen once wrote in a letter that she and her family were “great Novel-readers, & not ashamed of being so”, and in her novel Northanger Abbey, she gives her “Defense of the Novel” (even though she is also making fun of the falseness to real life of many novels of the era throughout Northanger Abbey).

It has been pointed out that most novel-writers and the majority of novel readers were women (thus in another passage Jane Austen calls Fanny Burney a “sister author”), while the “Reviewers”, the “nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England”, and the anthologist of “some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior” would all have been men. So in Jane Austen’s day, novels actually had something of the same reputation that mass-market romances do today.

“The progress of the friendship between Catherine [Morland] and Isabella was quick as its beginning had been warm… and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together. Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of [John] Milton, [Alexander] Pope, and [Matthew] Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.” — Such is the common cant. — “And what are you reading, Miss –?” “Oh! it is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, Camilla, or Belinda or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

One thing that many contemporary readers felt to be lacking in Jane Austen’s novels was their failure to be `instructive’ (i.e. to teach a moral), or `inspirational’ (that is “to elevate mankind by their depiction of ideal persons, even in defiance of the known realities of ordinary life” — Southam, p.14). Jane Austen makes fun of such didactic tendencies in her ending to Northanger Abbey: “I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny or reward filial disobedience.” In her last work (Sanditon), she has a very foolish character (Sir Edward Denham) criticize novels like those she herself writes as “vapid tissues of Ordinary occurrences from which no useful Deductions can be drawn.” Jane Austen also once said (in a letter of March 23 1816) that “pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked”, and she satirized the frequent lack of realism in the literature of the day in her Plan of a Novel: “there will be no mixture… the Good will be unexceptionable in every respect — and there will be no foibles or weaknesses but with the Wicked, who will be completely depraved and infamous, hardly a resemblance of Humanity left in them.”

What many other contemporary readers did admire in Jane Austen’s novels was their plausibility and depiction of real life — as opposed to the sensationalism, unlikely meetings between long-lost relatives, villainous aristocratic would-be ravishers, etc. that were the stock in trade of much of the literature of the period.

In Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen used the word “heroic” to describe the unnatural histrionics of the novels that she was satirizing. Thus Catherine Morland “who had by nature nothing heroic about her”, when she sees Henry Tilney with a

“fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, … immediately guessed [her] to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her forever, by being married already … and therefore, instead of turning of a deathlike paleness and falling in a fit on Mrs. Allen’s bosom, Catherine sat erect, in the perfect use of her senses, and with cheeks only a little redder than usual.”

And on another occasion, when Catherine has involuntarily stood up Henry Tilney, and he seems offended the next time she encounters him,

“Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured by this ready condemnation — instead of proudly resolving, in conscious innocence, to show her resentment towards him who could harbour a doubt of it, to leave to him all the trouble of seeking an explanation, and to enlighten him on the past only by avoiding his sight, or flirting with somebody else — she took to herself all the shame of misconduct, or at least of its appearance, and was only eager for an opportunity of explaining its cause.”

Early Novels

The first English novels created a consciousness among readers and potential writers that a significant and lasting form had come about and that literary careers could be built upon the genre.

Realistic Novel

Example: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defore (1719)

  • Regarded as the first novel in English
  • A fictional autobiography by a first-person narrator
  • This device, presenting an account of supposedly factual events, is known as a “false document”, and gives a realistic frame to the story
  • First of an endless series of novels in all world literature up to modern times

Philosophic Novel

Example: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)

  • A satire on human nature
  • A parody of the “travellers’ tales” literary sub-genre
  • Almost unique in England
  • A satirical view of the state of European government, and of petty differences between religions
  • An inquiry into whether man is inherently corrupt or whether men are corrupted
  • A restatement of the older “ancients v. moderns” controversy
  • French equivalents
    • Voltaire’s Candide and Zadig
    • Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes

Epistolary Novel

Example: Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740)

  • The first example of the epistolary novel 
  • Plot is advanced by letters or journal entries of one or more characters
  • Enjoyed its greatest popularity in England and France from the mid-1700s to the end of the century
  • The first mature novel to be written in English

Epic Novel

Example: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)

  • Comic romance rooted in the narrative conventions of romance and epic
  • Un-heroic hero: “ordinary” person
  • Omniscient, meddling, third-person narrator
  • Wide social range topics
  • Direct show and discussion of narrative devices
  • Paved the way for Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and William Thackeray

Experimental Novel

Example: Tristam Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759)

  • One of the greatest comic novels in English
  • Rambling plot
  • Meddling and maddening third-person narrator
  • Digressions as important as main plot
  • A forerunner for many modern narrative devices
    • stream of consciousness
    • self-reflection
    • modernist and postmodernist writing


A German word for “novel of education” or “novel of formation”, Bildungsroman means a novel that traces the spiritual, moral, psychological, or social development and growth of the main character from (usually) childhood to maturity.

  • The hero or heroine leaves home for a real or metaphoric journey due to some form of loss or discontent
  • The process of maturity is long, arduous, and gradual
    • clashes between the protagonist’s needs and desires and the views and judgments of social order.
  • In the end the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist who
    • accommodates into society.
    • assesses his/her new place in that society

All of Jane Austen’s novels (and almost all 19th-century novels) are bildungsroman.

Gothic Novels

Gothic Novels combined fiction, Romanticism, horror, and touches of the supernatural. They were over-dramatic and not necessarily realistic. They relied heavily on suspense. People considered “trashy” and “low-brow” because they were the least realistic and solely for entertainment. Society considered them a waste of time and energy, possibly even corruptive.
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764)
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe (1794)
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Thanks to Gothic novels, we now have genres such as:

  • Horror (Stephen King)
  • Thriller (Tom Clancy, James Patterson)
  • Suspense (John Grisham, Kathy Reichs)
  • Mystery (Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle)
  • Sci-Fi (H G Wells, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, George Lucas)
  • Fantasy (J R R Tolkien)
  • Adventure (J K Rowling)
  • Paranormal (Stephanie Meyer, Cassandra Clare)

Benefits of Reading Novels

1. Reading reduces stress levels.

New research has revealed that reading is the best way to relax and even six minutes can be enough to reduce the stress levels by more than two thirds.

Findings show that reading a newspaper or book works better and faster than listening to music, going for a walk or sitting down with a cup of tea to calm frazzled nerves. Psychologists say this is because the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction eases the tensions in muscles and the heart.

The research was carried out on a group of volunteers by consultancy Mindlab International at the University of Sussex. Their stress levels and heart rate were increased through a range of tests and exercises before they were then tested with a variety of traditional methods of relaxation. Reading worked best, reducing stress levels by 68 per cent, said cognitive neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis. He found that subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles. It actually got subjects to stress levels lower than before they started.

Listening to music reduced the levels by 61%, having a cup of tea or coffee lowered them by 54% and taking a walk by 42%. Playing video games brought them down by 21% from their highest level but still left the volunteers with heart rates above their starting point. Dr. Lewis said:

“Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. This is particularly poignant in uncertain economic times when we are all craving a certain amount of escapism. It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.”

In 2009, a group of researchers measured the effects of yoga, humor, and reading on the stress levels of students in demanding health science programs in the United States.

The study found that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressureheart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga and humor did.

The authors concluded, “Since time constraints are one of the most frequently cited reasons for high stress levels reported by health science students, 30 minutes of one of these techniques can be easily incorporated into their schedule without diverting a large amount of time from their studies.”

Lastly, reading can lower stress by preparing you for a good night’s rest. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic suggest reading as part of a regular sleep routine. For best results, you may want to choose a print book rather than reading on a screen, since the light emitted by your device could keep you awake and lead to other unwanted health outcomes. Doctors also recommend that you read somewhere other than your bedroom if you have trouble falling asleep.

2. Reading fights depression symptoms.

British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton once wrote, “Consolation from imaginary things is not an imaginary consolation.” People with depression often feel isolated and estranged from everyone else. And that’s a feeling books can sometimes lessen.

Reading fiction can allow you to temporarily escape your own world and become swept up in the imagined experiences of the characters. And nonfiction self-help books can teach you strategies that may help you manage symptoms.

That’s why the United Kingdom’s National Health Service has begun Reading Well, a Books on Prescription program, where medical experts prescribe self-help books curated by medical experts specifically for certain conditions.

3. Reading enhances our memory and can prevent age-related memory decline.

Researchers at the University of Exeter have found that there’s science behind poetry’s effect on the brain. There’s a “reading network” of brain areas that lights up whenever we interact with written material. In the Exeter study, 13 volunteers read an “extract from a heating installation manual, evocative passages from novels [and] easy and difficult sonnets, as well as their favorite poetry.” Regions of the brain linked to memory showed more activity than the general reading network while reading poetry.

The National Institute on Aging recommends reading books and magazines as a way of keeping your mind engaged as you grow older.

Although research hasn’t proven conclusively that reading books prevents diseases like Alzheimer’sstudies show that seniors who read and solve math problems every day maintain and improve their cognitive functioning.

And the earlier you start, the better. A 2013 study conducted by Rush University Medical Center found that people who’ve engaged in mentally stimulating activities all their lives were less likely to develop the plaques, lesions, and tau-protein tangles found in the brains of people with dementia.

4. Reading builds our vocabularies and comprehension.

Reading researchers as far back as the 1960s have discussed what’s known as “the Matthew effect,” a term that refers to biblical verse Matthew 13:12: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

The Matthew effect sums up the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer — a concept that applies as much to vocabulary as it does to money.

Researchers have found that students who read books regularly, beginning at a young age, gradually develop large vocabularies. And vocabulary size can influence many areas of your life, from scores on standardized tests to college admissions and job opportunities.

2019 poll conducted by Cengage showed that 69 percent of employers are looking to hire people with “soft” skills, like the ability to communicate effectively. Reading books is the best way to increase your exposure to new words, learned in context.

5. Reading gives us perspective.

Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character’s mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age. Words on a page can introduce us to what it’s like to lose a child, be swept up in a war, be born into poverty, or leave home and immigrate to a new country. And taken together, this can influence how we relate to others in the real world.

“Fiction and stories do a lot of things for us,” says William Chopik, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. “They expose us to uncomfortable ideas … and provide us with the opportunity to take other peoples’ perspectives in a safe, distanced way. In that way, fiction serves as a playground for exercising empathic skills.”

“Really, all art is metaphor,” Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, said. “When we read, we become Anna Karenina or Harry Potter. … We understand them from the inside.” He believes that this is helping to make us better at being human. Oatley noted that the earliest cave art emerged around the same time as the first burials. Both are forms of storytelling, a way of linking a physical truth — marks on a wall, a dead body in a shroud — with an imagined one — “these marks are a horse,” he said “this person is alive in our memory or another world.”

And both phenomena, for the most part, are unique to humans, one of the world’s most cooperative species. “Because we’re extremely social we have to understand other people, and the whole of culture is based on this,” he said. Funerals, art, literature, prestige TV — all of these things are evolutionary adaptations that give us insight into one another’s minds. “Without doing that you can’t cooperate,” Oatley said. “And this is pretty much the center of what it means to be human.”

6. Reading improves our sense of ethics and makes us more compassionate.

A team of researchers, including John Johnson, professor of psychology at Penn State DuBois, have discovered that literature may inspire readers to be ethical members of society.  “As an evolutionary psychologist,” said Johnson, “I am especially interested in the impact of literature on the emotions of the reader, and in what function these emotions serve.”

Johnson and fellow psychologist Dan Kruger from the University of Michigan teamed up with English professors Joe Carroll from the University of Missouri and John Gottschall from Washington and Jefferson College to complete this research and draft an article on their findings.  Their article, “Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels,” appeared in Evolutionary Psychology.

Johnson said human nature is constantly expressed in literary works.  Beneath the story line there are often subtle social messages. Concentrating on 19th century British novels, the team found that readers vicariously participate in a world that resembles the social dynamics of hunter-gatherer societies. The data confirms that the protagonists in these stories exhibit good morals and behavior, while the antagonists demonstrate status-seeking and dominant behavior. Johnson and his colleagues believe the classic good guy/bad guy tales appeal to readers in specific ways.

“We were not surprised to find that protagonists evoked feelings of fondness and admiration, while protagonists aroused feelings of anger and contempt,” Johnson said. “But two deeper questions are, first, what is it about good guys and bad guys that stir up different feelings in the reader, and, second, what is the purpose of literature that arouses these feelings? Our data indicate that readers like protagonists because they have more mild-mannered personalities and are motivated by a desire to help others and build alliances. Antagonists, on the other hand, are disliked because they are more aggressive and are motivated by self-interest, by the acquisition of personal wealth, power, and prestige. We believe that the purpose of this kind of literature is to activate emotions that encourage people to engage in ethical behavior in real life.”

To reach this conclusion, Johnson and his colleagues departed from traditional methods of literary studies and adopted a scientific approach. They gathered literary character ratings from more than 500 literary scholars, and tested specific hypotheses about Victorian novels.

7. Reading improves our ability to emphasize.

Psychologists have found that empathy is innate, as even babies show it. And while some people are naturally more empathetic than others, most people become more-so with age. Beyond that, some research indicates that if you’re motivated to become more empathetic, you probably can. Although there are many ways to cultivate empathy, they largely involve practicing positive social behaviors, like getting to know others, putting yourself in their shoes and challenging one’s own biases. And stories — fictional ones in particular — offer another way to step outside of oneself.

“Reading novels enables us to become better at actually understanding other people and what they’re up to,” says Keith Oatley, a novelist and professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. “[With] someone who you’re married to … or a close friend, you can actually get to know them. Reading fiction enables you to sample across a much wider range of possible people and come to understand something about the differences among them.”

In 2006, Oatley and his colleagues published a study that drew a strong connection between reading fiction and better performance on widely used empathy and social acumen tests. They tested participants on their ability to recognize author names, which helped them gauge how much fiction they read. Then, participants completed the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which scores people across different dimensions of empathy.

Participants also took the “Mind of the Eyes” assessment, which tested people on their ability to detect and understand visual cues of other people’s thoughts and emotions. In this test, participants matched words of emotions to photos of people’s eyes. (You can take a version of the test here.) Since then, exploring the intersection between empathy and fiction has caught on in psychology. Generally, it has been shown that the act of reading itself is what promotes a change in individuals. It’s not that people who are naturally more empathetic gravitate toward fiction, or that fiction readers have specific personality traits primed for greater empathy. “When we subtract all these things out, which we did [in our research], this idea that reading fiction enables people to understand others better was still there,” Oatley says.

The researchers also noted that there are distinctions between literary fiction and genre fiction that might explain differences in scores. Works of literary fiction tend to place greater emphasis on character development. The people and scenarios depicted in literature are more likely to disrupt reader expectations. Classic examples of literary fiction would be Toni Morrison’s Beloved or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. On the other hand, genre fiction — think Danielle Steele romance novels or a John Grisham legal thriller — takes a more plot-driven approach. Although they’re often entertaining page-turners, these books stick to more consistent and predictable themes that tend to reinforce readers’ views rather than challenge them.

Some of the most powerful examples of fiction’s influence on empathy come from studies that specifically looked at people’s attitudes toward members of stigmatized groups. For example, a 2014 study showed that elementary school and high school students in Italy and the United Kingdom became more empathic toward immigrants, refugees, and gay and lesbian people after reading Harry Potter. In their work, the researchers explained that “the world of Harry Potter is characterized by strict social hierarchies and resulting prejudices, with obvious parallels with our society.” People without magical powers are discriminated against in the series, for instance. That same year, another research team found that people who read Saffron Dreams — a fictional account of a Muslim woman of Middle Eastern descent in New York who was the victim of racist attacks — showed less negative bias toward people of different races or ethnicities. But participants who only read a summary of the book or a work of non-fiction didn’t show a similar shift in views.

But what people do with that extra empathy isn’t well understood by scientists, says Sarah Konrath, a researcher at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. “There is less research on the effects of reading on prosocial behaviors like giving, volunteering and helping,” says Konrath. “But since empathy is one of the main motivations of such kind behaviors, I do think that reading books can help to promote more kindness overall. But like any type of media, it probably depends on the content. After all, Mein Kampf by Hitler was a book that promoted hate.”

8. Reading improves our emotional intelligence and social cognition.

When it comes to reading, we may be assuming that reading for knowledge is the best reason to pick up a book. Research, however, suggests that reading fiction may provide far more important benefits than nonfiction. For example, reading fiction predicts increased social acuity and a sharper ability to comprehend other people’s motivations. Reading nonfiction might certainly be valuable for collecting knowledge, it does little to develop emotional intelligence, a far more elusive goal.

Research suggests that reading literary fiction is an effective way to enhance the brain’s ability to keep an open mind while processing information, a necessary skill for effective decision-making. In a 2013 study, researchers examined something called the need for cognitive closure, or the desire to “reach a quick conclusion in decision-making and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion.” Individuals with a strong need for cognitive closure rely heavily on “early information cues,” meaning they struggle to change their minds as new information becomes available. They also produce fewer individual hypotheses about alternative explanations, which makes them more confident in their own initial (and potentially flawed) beliefs. A high need for cognitive closure also means individuals gravitate toward smaller bits of information and fewer viewpoints. Individuals who resist the need for cognitive closure tend to be more thoughtful, more creative, and more comfortable with competing narratives—all characteristics of high emotional quotient (EQ).

University of Toronto researchers discovered that individuals in their study who read short stories (as opposed to essays) demonstrated a lower need for cognitive closure. That result is not surprising given that reading literature requires us to slow down, take in volumes of information, and then change our minds as we read. There’s no easy answer in literature; instead, there’s only perspective-taking. As readers, we’ll almost certainly find Lolita’s narrator Humbert Humbert odious, but we are forced to experience how he thinks, a valuable exercise for decreasing our need for cognitive closure. Furthermore, the researchers point out that when we are talking about someone else’s actions, we don’t feel compelled to defend ourselves. We can have conversations that might not happen in any other context, at least not with the same level of honesty.

9. Reading improves embodied cognition and theory of the mind.

Neuroscientists have discovered that reading a novel can improve brain function on a variety of levels. The recent study on the brain benefits of reading fiction was conducted at Emory University. The study titled, “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” was recently published in the journal Brain Connectivity.

The researchers found that becoming engrossed in a novel enhances connectivity in the brain and improves brain function. Interestingly, reading fiction was found to improve the reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and flex the imagination in a way that is similar to the visualization of a muscle memory in sports.

The changes caused by reading a novel were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the primary sensorimotor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded or embodied cognition. An example of embodied cognition is similar to visualization in sports—just thinking about playing basketball can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of playing basketball.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said neuroscientist Professor Gregory S. Berns, lead author of the study. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes improves theory of mind. “Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” said Dr. Berns, director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy in Atlanta. He added, “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.” The storytelling aspect of a novel is a multi-faceted form of communication that engages a broad range of brain regions. Although several linguistic and literary theories describe what constitutes a story, neurobiological research has just begun to identify the brain networks that are active when processing stories.

To determine a time frame of which connectivity in the brain lasted the longest, the researchers measured changes in resting-state connectivity before and after reading a novel. The researchers chose a novel over a short story because the length and depth of the novel would allow them to a set of repeated engagements with associated, unique stimuli (sections of the novel) set in a broader, controlled stimulus context that could be consumed between several periods in a brain scan.

The researchers took fMRI scans of the brains of 21 undergraduate students while they rested. Then the students were asked to read sections of the 2003 thriller novel Pompeii by Robert Harris over nine nights. The students’ brains were scanned each morning following the nightly reading assignment, and then again daily for five days after they had finished the book. The scans revealed heightened connectivity within the students’ brains on the mornings following the reading assignments. The areas with enhanced connectivity included the students’ left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension, as well as in the brain’s central sulcus, which is associated with sensations and movement. “The anterior (front) bank of the sulcus contains neurons that control movement of parts of the body,” Berns noted. Adding, “The posterior (rear) bank contains neurons that receive sensory input from the parts of the body. Enhanced connectivity here was a surprise finding, but it implies that, perhaps, the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist.”

The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes through embodied cognition is key to improving theory of mind and also the ability to be compassionate. Although this study does not directly draw these conclusions, it seems like common sense that if we encourage our children to read—as opposed to tuning out through television—theory of mind and the ability to be compassionate to another person’s suffering will improve. Reading a good novel allows your imagination to take flight. Novels allow you to forget about your day-to-day troubles and to transport yourself to a fantasy world that becomes a reality in your mind’s eye. Rarely is the movie adaptation of a book ever quite as good as the original novel. Even the most advanced special effects will always fall short of the visual power of your own imagination.

Berns concluded, “At a minimum, we can say that reading stories—especially those with strong narrative arcs—reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us. This may have profound implications for children and the role of reading in shaping their brains.”

10. Reading changes our brain structure for the better.

Not everyone is a natural reader. Poor readers may not truly understand the joy of literature, but they can be trained to become better readers. And in this training, their brains actually change. In a six-month daily reading program from Carnegie Mellon, scientists discovered that the volume of white matter in the language area of the brain actually increased. Further, they showed that brain structure can be improved with this training, making it more important than ever to adopt a healthy love of reading.

“Showing that it’s possible to rewire a brain’s white matter has important implications for treating reading disabilities and other developmental disorders, including autism,” said Just, the D.O. Hebb Professor of Psychology and director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging (CCBI). “We’re excited about these results. The indication that behavioral intervention can improve both cognitive performance and the microstructure of white matter tracts is a breakthrough for treating and understanding development problems.”

11. Narrative structure affects our brains’ sequencing abilities and attention spans.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end, and that’s a good thing for your brain. With this structure, our brains are encouraged to think in sequence, linking cause and effect. The more you read, the more your brain is able to adapt to this line of thinking. Neuroscientists encourage parents to take this knowledge and use it for children, reading to kids as much as possible. In doing so, you’ll be instilling story structure in young minds while the brain has more plasticity, and the capacity to expand their attention span.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield explained, “Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end – a structure that encourages our brains to think in sequence, to link cause, effect and significance. It is essential to learn this skill as a small child, while the brain has more plasticity, which is why it’s so important for parents to read to their children. The more we do it, the better we get at it. In a computer game, you might have to rescue a princess, but you don’t care about her, you just want to win. But a princess in a book has a past, present and future, she has connections and motivations. We can relate to her. We see the world through her eyes.”

John Stein, emeritus professor of neuroscience at Magdalen College, Oxford, says reading is far from a passive activity. “Reading exercises the whole brain,” he explains. Reading stories to children will help their brains develop the ability to analyze the cause, effect and significance of events.

12. Reading different styles creates new patterns in our brains.

Any kind of reading provides stimulation for your brain, but different types of reading give different experiences with varying benefits. Stanford University researchers have found that close literary reading in particular gives your brain a workout in multiple complex cognitive functions, while pleasure reading increases blood flow to different areas of the brain. They concluded that reading a novel closely for literary study and thinking about its value is an effective brain exercise, more effective than simple pleasure reading alone.

Early findings in an interdisciplinary study at Stanford University provide biological evidence that supports the value of literature. Neurobiological experts, radiologists, and literary scholars have joined forces to examine the relationship between reading, attention, and distraction, specifically the “cognitive dynamics of the different kinds of focus we bring to reading.”

Participants in the study are asked to read a chapter from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in two different manners: first, to leisurely skim a passage and then to read more closely, as if they were studying for an exam. The experiment takes place while participants are in an MRI machine so that researchers can monitor the blood flow in the brain during these activities. This shows “where neurons are firing, and when” and also tracks eye movement.

Natalie Phillips, the study’s leading researcher, said the global increase in blood flow during close reading suggests that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Blood flow also increased during pleasure reading, but in different areas of the brain. Phillips suggested that each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain that are “far more complex than just work and play.”

13. Your brain adapts to different media (print, audiobooks, and ebooks).

If you’re used to reading paper books, picking up an e-reader can feel very awkward at first. But experts insist that your brain can adopt the new technology quickly, no matter your age or how long you’ve been reading on paper. In fact, the human brain adapts to new technology, including e-reading, within seven days. Although your brain can adapt to e-books quickly, that doesn’t mean they offer the same benefits as a paperback. Specifically, they lack what’s called “spatial navigability,” physical cues like the heft of pages left to read that give us a sense of location. Evolution has shaped our minds to rely on location cues to find our way around, and without them, we can be left feeling a little lost. Some e-books offer little in the way of spatial landmarks, giving a sense of an infinite page. However, with page numbers, percentage read, and other physical cues, e-books can come close to the same physical experience as a paper book.

Before 1992, studies seemed to show that books were on the way out: readers looked as if they were comprehending text more slowly on a physical page than they did on a screen. Since then, however, studies have been a bit more diverse — largely because we’ve got so much more text and so many more types of screens — and scientists aren’t sure that’s actually the case. You may, however, retain less information from the story if you’re reading a tablet than if you’re reading a physical book.

Since at least the 1980s researchers in many different fields—including psychology, computer engineering, and library and information science—have investigated such questions in more than one hundred published studies. The matter is by no means settled. Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens. And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common. In the U.S., e-books currently make up between 15 and 20 percent of all trade book sales.

Even so, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper. A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.”

“There is physicality in reading,” says developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, “maybe even more than we want to think about as we lurch into digital reading—as we move forward perhaps with too little reflection. I would like to preserve the absolute best of older forms, but know when to use the new.”

Our brains were not designed for reading, but have adapted and created new circuits to understand letters and texts. The brain reads by constructing a mental representation of the text based on the placement of the page in the book and the word on the page.  The tactile experience of a book aids this process, from the thickness of the pages in your hands as you progress through the story to the placement of a word on the page. Mangen hypothesizes that the difference for Kindle readers “might have something to do with the fact that the fixity of a text on paper, and this very gradual unfolding of paper as you progress through a story is some kind of sensory offload, supporting the visual sense of progress when you’re reading.”

While e-readers try to recreate the sensation of turning pages and pagination, the screen is limited to one ephemeral virtual page. Surveys about the use of e-readers suggest that this affects a reader’s serendipity and sense of control. The inability to flip back to previous pages or control the text physically, either through making written notes or bending pages, limits one’s sensory experience and thus reduces long-term memory of the text.

Critics are also quick to dismiss audiobooks as a sub-par reading experience, but research has shown that the act of listening to a story can light up your brain. When we are being told a story, things change dramatically, according to researchers in Spain. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too. Not only are language processing parts of our brain activated, experiential parts of our brain come alive, too. Hear about food? Your sensory cortex lights up, while motion activates the motor cortex.

And while you may think that this is limited only to audiobooks or reading, experts insist that our brains are exposed to narratives all day long. In fact, researcher Jeremy Hsu shares, “Personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.” So go ahead, listen to your coworker’s long and drawn out story about their vacation, tune in to talk radio, or listen to an audiobook in the car: it’s good exercise for your brain. When we tell stories to others that have helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

14. Reading in other other languages causes our brains to grow.

Want to really give your brain a workout? Pick up a foreign language novel. Researchers at Lund University in Sweden tested students from the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy, where intensive language learning is the norm, and medicine and cognitive science students at Umea University. Both groups underwent brain scans just prior to and right after a three-month period of intensive study. Amazingly, the language students experienced brain growth in both the hippocampus and the cerebral cortex, with different levels of brain growth according to the amount of effort and learning students experienced in that period of time.

15. Reading about situations activates the same areas of the brain as experiencing them.

Have your ever felt so connected to a story that it’s as if you experienced it in real life? There’s a good reason why: your brain actually believes that you have experienced it. When we read, the brain does not make a real distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it. Whether reading or experiencing it, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Novels are able to enter into our thoughts and feelings. While you can certainly hop into a VR game at the mall and have a great time, it seems that reading is the original virtual reality experience, at least for your brain.

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.

The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.

16. We respond physically to metaphors.

A study by Emory University revealed that metaphors are actually more physical than we think they are — at least the ones about texture. They compared peoples’ MRI scans when they heard metaphors that used texture (“She had a rough day” was the example they gave), to when they heard the same statement without a metaphor (“She had a bad day”). The results? On hearing the texture metaphor, the part of the brain that activates when we actually touch something lit up. We’re genuinely feeling the metaphors we read.

Interestingly, sometimes just reading a tactile word is enough to provoke the corresponding bodily reaction. Writers often use metaphors to animate text and help readers understand abstract concepts. In an interesting recent study conducted by Simon Lacey of Emory University and his colleagues, they chose sentences that contained tactile metaphors–such as “She had a rough day”–and paired them with sentences with the same meaning but without the metaphors, such as “She had a bad day.” Participants lay in an fMRI scanner and listened to the various sentences. The researchers found that the brain regions that were activated when the participants heard sentences with texture metaphors were the same brain regions that are activated when people sense texture through touch. However those same brain regions were not activated when participants heard comparable sentences that lacked metaphors. Thus the use of metaphors packs visceral power that can enhance the reading experience. For example the sentence, “He was terribly scared upon encountering the loud bear” is less powerful than a sentence like “His skin prickled and his hair went electric at the ear-splitting roar of the bear.”

17. Our brains respond positively to visual imagery.

A new brain-imaging study is shedding light on what it means to “get lost” in a good book — suggesting that readers create vivid mental simulations of the sounds, sights, tastes and movements described in a textual narrative while simultaneously activating brain regions used to process similar experiences in real life.

Reading books and other materials with vivid imagery is not only fun, it also allows us to create worlds in our own minds. But did you know that this happens even if you don’t mean it to? Researchers have found that visual imagery is simply automatic. Participants were able to identify photos of objects faster if they’d just read a sentence that described the object visually, suggesting that when we read a sentence, we automatically bring up pictures of objects in our minds.

18. The invention of written language (and therefore reading) changed the evolution of our brains and contributed to our success as a species.

Let’s look first at survival: Among the many things that set humans apart from other animals is our capacity for counterfactual thinking. At its most basic level, this means we can hypothesize what might happen if we run out of milk; in its most elaborate form—we get War and Peace. Stories, then, are complex counterfactual explorations of possible outcomes: What would happen if I killed my landlady? What would happen if I had an affair with Count Vronsky? How do I avoid a water buffalo? According to Denis Dutton, these “low-cost, low-risk” surrogate experiences build up our knowledge stores and help us adapt to new situations. (“Mirror neuron” research indicates that our brains process lived and read experiences almost identically.)  A good “cautionary tale,” for example, might help us avert disaster. Stories can also provide useful historical, scientific, cultural and geographical information. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines illustrates this on two tiers: In armchair-travel fashion, the book acquaints readers with the Australian Outback, while simultaneously describing how Aboriginals sang stories walking at a specific pace so that geographical markers within the story would guide their journey.

The soaring popularity of romance novels, spy thrillers, apocalyptic zombie tales, and murder mysteries reflect, in many ways, our Pleistocene narrative appetites; their subjects are sex and survival. But to help you actually have sex and survive, it makes sense that only the the best-written and well-rendered tales would help ensure a long line of descendants.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s American Time Use Survey, the average American spends almost 20% of his or her waking life watching television.  Add to that movies, gaming, books and magazines (reading alone consumed less than 3% of the waking hours of those surveyed), and you can postulate that almost a quarter of our waking lives are spent in imagined worlds. Evolutionarily, that number is off the charts.  Thanks to Gutenberg and the inventions of film and television, we immerse ourselves in more narratives than our ancestors could have imagined, which means we’re cutting back, along the way, on real-life experience. This means our choice of which stories to consume is more crucial than ever. They need to be as useful as lived experience, or more so, or we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage.

Back in the Pleistocene, you might not have had an Ernest Hemingway in your clan. Today we can pick up the books of the most dazzling, intelligent storytellers in the world, from all time.  We can tune into the primetime masterpieces of the Golden Age of television. And if we can soak up their wisdom, and make ourselves a little bit smarter, we might just all make it to the next Ice Age.

19. Reading can help us live longer.

A long-term health and retirement study followed a cohort of 3,635 adult participants for a period of 12 years, finding that those who read books survived around 2 years longer than those who either didn’t read or who read magazines and other forms of media.

The study also concluded that people who read more than 3 1/2 hours every week were 23 percent likely to live longer than those who didn’t read at all.

20. Your Brain on Jane

Could modern cognitive theories explain character development in one of Austen’s most famous heroines — Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett? Michigan State University professor Phillips thinks Bennett’s distractability was key to Austen’s characterization of her lively mind — and that Austen herself was drawing on the contemporary theories of cognition in her time. If neuroscience could inform literature, Phillips asked, could literature inform neuroscience?

She decided to conduct a study, looking at how reading affects the brain. She had volunteers lie still in a brain scanner and read Austen. Phillips sometimes instructed her volunteers to browse, as they might do at a bookstore. Other times, she asked them to delve deep, as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis.

Phillips and her collaborators scanned the brains of the volunteers using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. The scanner paints a rough picture of brain activity. A computer program simultaneously tracked readers’ eye movements across the page, and researchers kept tabs on the volunteers’ breathing and heart rate. At the end of the experiment, Phillips asked each volunteer to write a short essay based on the passages he or she read.

Neuroscientists warned Phillips she wouldn’t see many brain differences between the casual reading and intense reading. “Everyone told me to expect these really, really minute and subtle effects,” she said, “because everyone was going to be doing the same thing, right? Reading Jane Austen. And they were just going to be doing it in two different ways.” Phillips said she mainly expected to see differences in parts of the brain that regulate attention because that was the main difference between casual and focused reading.

But in a neuroscientific plot twist, Phillips said preliminary results showed otherwise: “What’s been taking us by surprise in our early data analysis is how much the whole brain — global activations across a number of different regions — seems to be transforming and shifting between the pleasure and the close reading.”

Phillips found that close reading activated unexpected areas: parts of the brain that are involved in movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.

Phillips’ research fits into an interdisciplinary new field sometimes dubbed “literary neuroscience.” Other researchers are examining poetry and rhythm in the brain, how metaphors excite sensory regions of the brain, and the neurological shifts between reading a complex text like Marcel Proust compared with reading a newspaper — all in hopes of giving a more complete picture of human cognition.


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