Disclaimer: I’m not a psychology professional. However, I am fascinated by psychology—the human mind is one of the weirdest and intriguing things out there, and in my writing, I love exploring the psychological dimensions of my characters.

Ever since I began getting serious about reading in 2017, I’ve been curious to know how reading affects thinking, understanding, and other parts of human psychology. It turns out that being a reading fan can do great things for your brain! So hopefully after reading this post, you’ll have even more incentive to dive into those books towering up on your to-be-read pile.  

A great article I found while researching this topic comes from Psychology Today. In her post “How Reading Can Change You in a Major Way,” Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., writes, “One personality quality enhanced by literature is empathy, the ability to understand someone else’s point-of-view.” (Check out the awesome article here.)

I can attest to this. First-person narratives obviously are awesome for building empathy since you, the reader, are right up there in the cockpit with the narrator. Back in May 2017, I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. If you told me before I started reading the novel that I would end up understanding the viewpoint of a whiny, spoiled teenage boy with a habit of overusing slang, I wouldn’t have believed you.  

Although first-person stories are the easiest to gain empathy, the same works for third-person and even those most elusive of works, the second-person POV narrative. While reading Blood Meridian in February 2018 (a third-person point-of-view), I could feel The Kid’s terror as villainous Judge Holden tried to track him down across the American southwest . . . now, I’m not saying that I empathized with the Judge’s homicidal tendencies, but still, I didn’t dismiss him out of hand as “the bad guy” to root against. I could see that Holden was a human, too, just like The Kid, and that he had some serious problems that he wanted to take out on The Kid (okay, maybe that wasn’t the best example, but hopefully you get what I’m saying). What’s fascinating is that this empathy can transfer over to real life, helping you interact with family, friends, and coworkers better, especially when they’re telling their own stories or trying to talk through problems.  

Sometimes I think humans weren’t made to handle the barrage of information we’ve made for ourselves in the 21st Century. An awesome thing about reading is that it forces your mind to slow down. In a world full of instant or near-instant communication and an emphasis on busyness, it’s wonderful to open a book and have the pace of life ease to a manageable rate. Even if you’re the fastest reader on the planet, you can’t deny that a novel helps your brain slow down and focus on the words in front of you—unless you want the words not to make sense! 

Another aspect of reading and human psychology is the ability of books to expand the imagination and make you think in different ways. This is especially true if you read a variety of books in different, even experimental, styles.

I’m a fiction writer, so reading novels is basically my rocket fuel for imagination. Even if you’re not a writer, though, books can still do wonders for how you see things—I remember as a kid, before I got into writing, the Harry Potter series made me realize that there are worlds that you can “live” in outside the real one. If you have a job that requires a lot of creative thinking—or if you’re like me and make creative thinking and your goal in life—then books will be your best friends.  They’ll help you think in ways that go beyond what’s been thought before, freeing your mind of stale ideas.

A companion to this post will be coming out next Tuesday, so stay tuned! Meanwhile, you can follow me on Twitter at @ethan_nelsonwrt for takes on writing and reading, all under 280 characters.