Eureka! Great novels really ARE good for us

Mind-blowing: Reading a classic can make the ”brain come alive”. (Frank Owen Salisbury: A Summer Beauty)

Is literature better for you than self-help? New research suggests that traveling into the mind of another person is more helpful than studiously trying to understand our own thinking.

We have told each other stories for thousands of years.

Tales of strife, romance, and bravery have illuminated minds since the dawn of history.

In the centuries before Xbox and Netflix, novels provided us with distraction from the real world.

But a major, new book based on important new academic research confirms what many experts had long suspected: a good novel is far more than simply escapism – it is a key part of leading an enjoyable existence.

Professor Philip Davis is the author of Reading for Life, published last week by Oxford University Press.

The book highlights studies showing that reading great novels can be better for mental health than reading self-help texts.

By studying the behaviour of people’s brains while they were reading, Davis concludes that the complex language involved in classic works of fiction can help to relieve depression, chronic pain, and dementia.

While self-help books might offer tips as to how better to manage one’s time, or how to avoid thinking of upsetting situations, they do not trigger any new behaviours in our brains.

“If you’re just scanning for information, you go fast, it’s very easy, it’s automatic,” Davis says. “But when literature begins to do something more complicated than that, the brain begins to work. It gets excited, it gets emotional.”

Studies have shown that reading or hearing stories stimulates the parts of our brains which are involved in social and emotional processing. Reading fiction makes it easier to understand what others are going through.

“It teaches us about other people and it’s a practice in empathy and theory of mind,” says Professor Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

The science shows that fiction breaks down the barriers that we draw up between ourselves and the rest of the world. It allows us to enter the minds of different people from all periods of history and all walks of life. Through literature, we can travel through time and across the whole range of human experience.

It is little wonder that it has a positive impact on mental health, experts say. One NHS medical director goes as far as believing that reading aloud with others is “the most significant development in mental healthcare in the past 10 years”.

So, is literature better for you than self-help?

Novel cure?

Of course it is! Franz Kafka once said that great literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us”. Anyone who reads a lot of novels will understand the profound impact that a great book will have on one’s mind and soul: they are an ancient technology. But as these studies show, novels can play an essential role in our society’s efforts to understand and alleviate mental health problems.

No. There is no doubt that literature invigorates our brains, but self-help books exist for a specific reason. Though they may not make us feel better during the moment we read them, they still equip us with valuable skills and insight. There is also a danger in limiting what literature is for and prescribing it like a drug. Fiction’s lack of explicit purpose is part of what makes it so special.

You Decide

  1. Do you find the stories in literature more engrossing than stories in film or television?
  2. Do you think that seeing fiction as a form of therapy will stop you from enjoying the next book that you read?


  1. Think of something that you learned at school this week. Rewrite it as a story with characters (half a side, be as creative as possible).
  2. Remember the plot of the most recent novel you read and sketch it out in bullet-points. Now, rewrite those bullet points as if they were lessons from a self-help book.

Some People Say...

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Italian writer and journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRILS), at the University of Liverpool, has shown in multiple tests that reading is a potentially transformative process. It is “a means of opening and reopening, innerly shifting and deepening, mental pathways”. Brain imaging shows that literary language, such as new metaphors, can have physical effects. Serious literature reaches those neural pathways that other texts cannot; it awakens a heightened state of existence in the world and “opens out the inside place in human beings”.
What do we not know?
The book is at pains to point out that research does NOT show literature to be a replacement for self-help books, or other forms of therapy. We do not know whether self-help books offer more value to the reader’s mental health after they have read them. We do not know whether all classic novels will offer the same value to readers.

Word Watch

Difficulty, drama.
Non-fiction books that focus on how to improve the reader’s life.
That lasts for a long time or that keeps coming back.
A disease of the brain which affects memory and reasoning, more commonly seen in old age.
Franz Kafka
German-Czech writer (1883-1924), famous for his novella Metamorphosis and his novel The Trial.
Stimulates, brings to life.


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