Fiction or Non-Fiction – Which is Better?

by | Aug 13, 2018



Reading books for pleasure has a lot of benefits. Reading can:

Yet, according to a survey from Pew Research Center, about 1/4th of American adults report not reading a book in whole or in part during the prior year.

If you are going to read, which is better, fiction on non-fiction? Short answer: they are both great and confer benefits, but reading fiction confers special benefits that non-fiction does not.*

Reading Fiction leads to being more open-minded and creative

Reading fiction improves the ability to be open-minded and creative according to a study from the University of Toronto.  The study concerned the need for “cognitive closure” which is the human desire to eliminate ambiguity and arrive at definite conclusions. Cognitive closure leads to lower creativity and rationality. Study participants either read non-fictional essays or fictional short stories and then were tested on their cognitive closure. Those who read the fiction short stories had significantly less need for cognitive closure. The researchers wrote that “although nonfiction reading allows students to learn the subject matter, it may not always help them in thinking about it. [For example], a physician may have an encyclopedic knowledge of his or her subject, but this may not prevent the physician from seizing and freezing on a diagnosis, when additional symptoms point to a different malady.” A physician with a lower need for cognitive closure is desirable – when choosing a doctor, you may want to ask them if they read fiction!


Reading Fiction improves theory of mind and increases empathy

Reading literary fiction has been shown to improve our “Theory of Mind” (“ToM”) which is our ability to recognize and attribute mental states of others. Study: Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind. According to Dr. Timothy Smith, “Theory of Mind refers to the concept that a person has a sense of their own mental states such as thoughts, dreams, desires and ideas as well as recognizing that other people have their own separate thoughts, feelings and minds different from one’s own. Theory of Mind includes the ability to recognize mental conditions such as imagination, knowledge, motivations, empathy and desires.” Having a well developed ToM is very important for navigating the complex social landscape in which we live. For example, individuals on the autism spectrum typically have ToM impairment.

Having a more developed ToM enhances our ability to be empathetic, which is a desirable trait, is a key component of emotional intelligence and is necessary to navigate our complex social world.  It turns out that when we read fiction, the parts of our brain that we use to understand stories are largely the same as those we use in interacting with other individuals. That’s because when we read about a situation or feeling, it’s very nearly as if we’re feeling it ourselves. As reported by Fast Company “researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about.”

According to Dr. Keith Oatley of the University of Toronto, fiction “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

reading fiction improves brain connectivity and function

study from Emory University found that reading fiction actually can change how our brain functions. After reading a compelling work of fiction, brain scans showed heightened connectivity “in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language,” as well as “the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain.” Ok, it makes sense that reading would enhance connectivity in the area of the brain associated with language. But, why a motor region? From the study author:  “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.” In the study the connectivity enhancements occurred in scans the mornings after reading the book and persisted for days after the volunteers had finished the book, suggesting that consistent and long-term fiction reading is beneficial to our brains.

Looking for some book recommendations? I have a few pages on books I’ve read and recommend. You can find them here:  Book Lists

I particularly like science fiction and fantasy. I think it helps creativity and helps dealing with change.  I think that the suspension of disbelief necessary for reading sci-fi or fantasy is hugely beneficial for creativity. However, is science fiction crap?

IFOD on Printed Books vs. E-Books

*Of course, non-fiction is usually necessary to learn about most topics. For instance, fiction isn’t going to help me learn more about investments or physics. So, reading non-fiction is important as well.


  1. Why is reading about people who do not exist and lived through experiences that never happened better than reading history?

    Example: How has Harry Potter helped you to do what?

  2. Please provide the name, year & publication outlet for the Washington Univ., St. Louis article alluded to above (reported by the Fast Company). Can’t find it anywhere, want to read it. Thank you.

  3. John, I highly recommend Bad Blood, non fiction but a page turner!


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