Does reading fiction help your brain?

Recently a flurry of articles came out that purport to describe how reading fiction improves the brain.

Brain Function “Boosted For Days After Reading a Novel” from slashdot

Your brain on fiction from the New York Times

It would be great if it was possible to measure “brain function” in a simple way and to be able to show that reading a novel causes an improvement in “brain function”.  Unfortunately reality is not this simple.  When one is reading a novel time passes.  Over time, a multitude of intervening variables might influence the dependent variable/s in question.

These studies are a perfect example of the limits of science.  Certain phenomena are too complex to fit neatly into a hypothesis or controlled experiment.  It is obvious to anyone who spends time reading good fiction that it is relaxing and beneficial in many ways.  For one thing, reading requires a person to carve a substantial amount of time out of each day and this alone might account for some of the benefits from reading.

In any event, why does there have to be a scientific explanation for something so pleasurable and so human?  Why do we need to pick it apart and dissect it?  However, if studies like this do encourage more people to read deeply then that is fine.

The magic of literature and the other arts is that they are mysterious.  There are some things in this universe that scientists will never poke, prod or measure.  Muses are one of these.

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