I have a theory that art actually confers upon humans an evolutionary advantage. Given the confines of a single body and a single life, a single human is confined to a relatively narrow set of experiences (of course even that narrow set can be stunning and profound). But art – whether literature, poetry, film, music, sculpture, visual arts, etc. – expands the range of experiences a single human can have. By participating in art, by receiving it, appreciating it, experiencing it, a single person can live a multiplicity of lives. So the more art a person experiences, the better equipped a person is to respond to the vagaries of life, the drama of human relationships, the rhythms of life and death. At least that’s my theory.
Recently I actually came across some data that seems to uphold my ideas. The Utne reader summarized an article from the Scientific American Mind (Nov. Dec. 2011).
“Several studies confirm the heightened emotional intelligence of bookworms: In 2006 researchers found that people who read fiction rather than nonfiction can more easily decipher the emotions of others, simply by looking at their eyes. The following year, researchers discovered that reading a single short story would temporarily improve subjects’ social skills. And in 2010 they showed that exposure to stories made preschoolers more able to take on the perspectives of others….MRI scans show that when we read fiction, our brains mirror the protagonists’ actions and our emotions swell in response to their plight.”
So go ahead and read stories, it will probably make you smarter, and it may just give you more life.