According to "In the Minds of Others", an article by Keith Oatley in Scientific American Mind, reading fiction is entertaining. It provides an escape from your problems. But can it really help you psychologically?
Fiction can help improve your relationships with others. It can also change your personality and impact the happiness of your life.
When you read about the lives of others, including what they are thinking, helps you understand them. This allows you to build empathy and see another point of view. Computer programs use sophisticated technology to allow you to experience another world. Readers have done this for centuries.
The socially-withdrawn bookworm is a sterotype that still exists. But a study done in Toronto found that those who read the most fiction were better at recognizing emotions and interpreting social cues. Other studies revealed that reading fiction helped people solve logic problems or draw conclusions about social situations. The improvement was seen after as little as an hour of reading. On the other hand, children who watched many hours of television were less able to understand others.
People who read fiction on a regular basis also had better social connections than those who confined themselves to nonfiction. Your "sense of self" is also changed as you are more likely to become more open and perceptive about fellow humans.
Why all the benefits? The source is the emotional connection between the reader and the characters. This allows us to picture ourselves as part of the story, experiencing aspects of the plotline. Brain imaging studies reveal that when you read about a character sitting on a chair, for example, the reader's brain lights up as if he or she were performing the action. In short, we virtually live through good fiction. While we experience our own emotions in reaction to events, we are still tied to the story.
The takeaway? Get off the computer and go read a good book.