Reading Fiction Makes You Smarter and Here's How

Published 07 May 2024
by Anca Antoci

Just witnessed a debate on whether reading makes you smarter. Some people think fiction is useless, while nonfiction is the only reading helping you grow. I heard people saying more than once that reading fiction is a useless hobby. As a voracious fiction reader and a fantasy writer, I am both appalled and insulted.

Perhaps I am biased because no one enjoyed when someone belittles our hobbies. I live for fiction. So I went online and did some research, you know—some light reading. And that prompted this blog post, because I found some interesting facts, supported by science.

So does reading fiction make you smarter? Hold on to your bookmarks, because I’m here to tell you they’re missing out on a whole galaxy of cognitive benefits!

But What Does “Smarter” Mean?

First of all, let’s break down what it means to be “smarter.” Is it all about cramming your noggin with facts and figures, or is there more to it? I am more inclined towards the latter.

True intelligence is more than just knowledge, it’s about understanding, thinking critically, and seeing the bigger picture.

Some people equate intelligence with having extensive knowledge and the ability to easily recall facts, figures, and historical events. This type of intelligence is often associated with academic success and a deep understanding of specific subjects.

Intelligence can also come out in other forms, like being able to think critically, analyze complex situations, and solve problems creatively. Intelligence isn’t just about remembering things, it’s about using what you know in real life.

Moreover, having emotional intelligence is crucial for dealing with people. Being emotionally intelligent means understanding and managing our own emotions, as well as being able to empathize with others and build meaningful relationships.

So, when we ask whether reading makes you “smarter,” we’re really asking whether it contributes to any or all of these aspects of intelligence. Does it enhance our knowledge and vocabulary? Does it sharpen our critical thinking skills and broaden our understanding of the world? Does it make us more empathetic and emotionally attuned to others? These are the questions we’ll explore as we discuss the benefits of reading.

While the definition of intelligence may differ, one thing is certain: reading greatly improves vocabulary, comprehension, and cultural awareness.

It’s worth mentioning that engaging in activities that stimulate the brain, including reading, can enhance its performance. Similar to how muscles need to be exercised, it’s crucial to keep the brain active.

The crucial factor here is the ability to understand what you read. The more you comprehend, the more you can learn from complex texts.

Moreover, fiction isn’t just about escapism; it’s a gateway to empathy and understanding. Through the pages of a novel, we walk in the shoes of characters from diverse backgrounds, gaining insights that transcend our own experiences. It’s like having a backstage pass to the human experience.

Does being smarter mean having a wider range of perspectives? And does it involve the ability to rely on those diverse perspectives and experiences to apply them to rhetoric and problem-solving in various life situations and when dealing with people? I would say reading also helps with this as well, specifically reading fiction, as it exposes you to a lot of perspectives that are incredibly valuable in life.

If you associate being smarter with having a higher IQ and being able to do math really quickly, then reading isn’t going to help with that.

“Smartness” is a very subjective quality that is basically impossible to measure. However, I think “smart” people are more likely to be readers than non “smart” people, for whatever that’s worth.

Reading helps you understand other people’s perspectives better and develop empathy. To a certain degree, avid reading is associated with curiosity.

I love reading and writing fiction because it lets me escape reality for a bit. Reading fiction has enriched my life for many years. I’ve traveled to different countries, planets, and realms. Through time travel, I have witnessed the wonders of both the past and the future. And I was always back in time to pick my daughter up from school and have dinner ready.

What Science says about Reading

Studies suggest that regular reading can stave off cognitive decline, acting as a shield against conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. So, next time you curl up with a book, know that you’re not just indulging in a hobby; you’re investing in your brain’s health.

Another study concluded that reading literary fiction can change how we see the world. Books show us different perspectives, situations, and people, making us believe that the world is full of complexities. In four different studies involving over 5,000 people, researchers discovered that people who read literary fiction when they were young tend to have a more nuanced view of the world.

I feel like I learn a lot from reading fiction. But it’s important to remember that fiction is not a documentary. So whenever I come across something I find intriguing, I will stop reading and research it to see if it’s true. I do the same when watching a movie or tv-show too. I’m curious that way.

That reminds me of this story about how Agatha Christie’s story “The Pale Horse” saved the life of a baby girl dying of a condition that baffled London doctors. A nurse who had been reading “The Pale Horse” correctly suggested that the baby in her care was suffering from thallium poisoning. So don’t tell me that reading fiction is a waste of time.


In the end, the question remains: does reading make you smarter? The answer, dear reader, lies in the pages of the books that line your shelves. Whether you’re traversing distant galaxies or unraveling the mysteries of the human psyche, every story leaves its mark, enriching your mind and soul.

So, next time someone makes fun of your love for fiction, just smile. You’re not just a reader; you’re a seeker of knowledge, an explorer of worlds. And in a world that doesn’t give imagination enough credit, that’s really something special.