OK, that title may be a touch misleading because this isn’t a neurological essay. But I do believe that reading science fiction is unique in its benefits. Let’s start with reading in general, although lately the picture isn’t pretty.
Every year the Pew Research Centre surveys the level of readership among American citizens. In 2015 28% of Americans did not read a book, in any form, and the numbers are getting worse. Certainly we do a lot of reading online, especially social media, and maybe a lot of that is time we would otherwise have spent reading books. Of course, television has often been blamed as the enemy of book reading. When asked about it, people will complain about their trying work day and say, “I just don’t want to think for a while—I want to turn my brain off.” I’ve caught myself saying it (but then I read all day long, in some form or other).
Obviously our brains aren’t switched off when we watch TV or movies. We’re still analysing plot details, observing the characters’ behaviour, piecing clues together, absorbing setting elements of each frame, and predicting the action to come. We’re empathising with the people we like, mentally arguing with those we don’t, and whether it’s reality TV or fiction, our emotions are getting a workout. We face pop-up ads on the screen and, if we choose to watch commercials, a bombardment of information that we automatically begin to judge for its veracity and usefulness, enticements that we must balance against our own resources, and a whole range of other things that make our brains work pretty hard.
In reading a book, there is similar interaction with characters and plot, plus we also have to process written words and imagine what they describe (but don’t have to process the extraneous content included in a video picture). We allow the interpretation of the words to trigger responses from our senses to a degree. But we don’t have to endure commercials—not even product placements, usually. We have to turn pages but we don’t have to master a remote control. We can skip or re-read any section we want, with no more effort.
Which one is really the most work?
The majority of people are readers, and since reading in school has been proven to encourage a lifelong reading habit (generally) and more people are attending college or university these days, the demise of the book is probably still a long way off.
Articles like this one cite research to claim that reading for pleasure makes us more satisfied with our lives, better able to make decisions, more connected to other people and more empathetic (by understanding that they share our experiences and feelings—take that, Facebook), with greater awareness of social issues and cultural diversity, higher self-esteem, and the list goes on.
What does this have to do with science fiction (apart from encouraging more readers overall)?
Well, reading for pleasure has been proven to give us much greater general knowledge, and readers of science fiction are exposed to a huge range of extra information from every field of science, of course, but also philosophy, history, religion, and even art, as SF stories explore alternate timelines, alien cultures, and possible futures. I don’t think any other art form is as good at broadening our thinking and encouraging our imagination. It can both illuminate and inspire, warn us off and spur us on. Unlike most other forms of art and entertainment, the potential of SF to take us beyond the confines of our normal lives is almost limitless.
I will admit that reading SF is a little more work.
But it’s worth every bit of it.