But I also enjoy burying myself in a good fictional book that keeps my imagination going and has a storyline that somehow touches my heart. That way I can always have a good balance between stimulating the intellect (non-fiction) and the emotions (fiction).
So naturally, I was intrigued when I recently came across an article by Jonathan Gottschall entitled Why Fiction Is Good For You (published online at boston.com). I had always thought that fiction was good for me in the sense of entertaining me, kind of like curling up on the couch to watch a nice movie. Well, that's not what this man is talking about.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves and instead start with the basics, namely that stories have an influence on us. Here's Gottschall:
"This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story's spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape."So far, so good. But doesn't that imply that we are easily influenced in a negative way when we read fiction? How can that be good for us? If that's what you're thinking, then this probably comes as a surprise to you, as it did to me:
"But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds."The reason for that is pretty simple: In most fictional stories, the bad guys are not allowed to live happily ever after. These tales usually teach us that it is profitable to be good. Hence, we are also more likely to be good guys than bad guys if we read a lot of fiction, because we intuitively know that, in the long run, crime won't pay. Of course, Gottschall does acknowledge that fiction is dangerous "because it has the power to modify the principles of individuals and whole societies." Not sure about the 'whole societies" part of that quote? Well, he cites two examples to prove it: a positive and a negative one.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is probably the prime example of a book that brought about a huge change of values at the societal level by convincing large numbers of Americans that blacks are also people and should not be kept as slaves. The result, of course, was the American Civil War between the northern and southern states that ultimately ended slavery (officially).
"On the other hand, the film 'The Birth of a Nation' inflamed racist sentiments and helped resurrect an all but defunct KKK."
So essentially, it's still up to us to choose fictional stories that make the world a better place; those in which the good guys win, the bad guys lose, but above all - those which lead us to more empathy for and a better understanding of the people that surround us each and every day.