Reading fantasy is a favorite pastime of people all across the world. It’s a great way to escape from the dullness of the world and embrace an entirely new realm that lies outside of the confines of reality.
Everyone knows that fantasy is an excellent means to ignite the imagination, but many people wonder how much of a difference in intelligence that reading fantasy can make.
Reading fantasy makes people smarter in a variety of intelligible areas. These stories provide people with a model for addressing real problems by offering ways to settle conflicts through critical thinking and interpersonal skills. Fantasy also feeds curiosity—the true mark of intelligence.
The difficulty in proving this bold claim is linked to the fact that it’s tough to pinpoint the exact definition of intelligence. To start, we’ll define what intelligence means in the context of this article so we can better understand how reading fantasy improves your mind. Read until the end to see whether reading fiction or non-fiction is best for developing your brain.
How Do You Define “Smarter?”
To provide a proper answer to the central question of this article, our first order of business will have to be defining what the term “smarter” actually means.
The Problem is that Intelligence is a Rather Generic Term
People have different connotations of what smart means to them. For some individuals, smart means that a person is mentally capable of unraveling any thought-heavy problem that they’re presented with. The people that they consider smart are talented at deducing patterns and correlations in the information that’s made available to them. Often, these types of people do exceptionally well in a scholarly context, like school or research.
On the other hand, people who are well acquainted with organizing their thoughts and presenting them to other people effectively can also be considered smart. Rather than finding the answers to scientific and mathematical problems, they excel in communication and sensitivity to other people’s perspectives.
The list of ways that people define intelligence can go on and on. There’s musical intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence, spatial intelligence, philosophical intelligence… you get the point.
How “Smarter” Will Be Defined for the Purposes of This Article
The dictionary definition for smart is “having or showing a quick-witted intelligence,” and the dictionary definition for intelligence is “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills” (source).
Throughout this article, we’ll be referring to these dictionary definitions to relate fantasy readings to improvements in mental capacities. The critical thing to focus on here is “acquir[ing] and apply[ing] knowledge and skills” since this is the basis for solving real-world problems.
I like to think of the brain as a toolbox. Throughout your life, you continually add to this toolbox so that you ultimately have more resources at your disposal to tackle tougher, more complex challenges.
Below, we’ll discuss nine mental benefits that result from reading fantasy. Each of these nine mental benefits adds to this mental toolbox—if you will—to help make you a smarter, more well-rounded individual.
So if you find yourself disregarding some of the following picks as qualifying as a boost in intelligence, know that they at least fit the formal criteria of intelligence as outlined above.
1.) Steadily Develops Your Sense of Empathy
First and foremost, fantasy helps readers to get a better grasp of their empathetic side. Empathy is a form of emotional intelligence in that it aids people in relating to others to help see life through their subjective lens.
This emotional intelligence comes in handy when trying to reach an accommodation between two conflicting sides. This is a hard skill to obtain since everyone’s views are inevitably skewed by their own perspectives and life experiences. To solve real-world problems, empathy is a necessity. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to reach a resolution that is mutually beneficial for both sides.
Fantasy builds up empathy by thrusting the reader into a variety of different characters. You’re with them on every step of their journey. You get a glimpse into their thoughts, feelings, motives, and interactions with other characters.
There have been past studies to prove this, including an experiment conducted by Raymond A. Mar. Mar recorded empathy/social-acumen measures in relation to lifetime exposure to fiction versus non-fiction texts. After analyzing the data, the study indicated a positive relationship between repeated exposure to fictional texts and higher social ability scores (source).
You get the good, the bad, and the ugly by living vicariously through these fictional characters. This is a rarity in real life because we’re seldom presented with the opportunity to see life through someone else’s shoes. This type of exposure helps to ease us out of our subjective perspectives to see through a different kind of lens.
Although we may not necessarily identify with these fictional characters’ beliefs, they open up entirely different mental avenues that we can use for real-life scenarios.
2.) Trains You to Think Beyond the Surface Level
In addition, fantasy teaches readers how to extend their thoughts beyond the superficial layer. Fantasy stories encourage readers to dig deeper and discover the answers to their questions below the surface.
Read any reputable fantasy story, and you’ll see that it’s filled with metaphors and symbolism that hint at eventual plot and character developments.
As you continue to read fantasy, you get better at picking up on these sort of underlying signals. It’s almost like you’re piecing together a puzzle, except that you’re being fed the pieces with each progressive chapter. Of course, you can enjoy the story exclusively at the surface level, but this hidden element of fantasy stories unearths an altogether different kind of satisfaction.
This sort of thinking has real-world application in that the answers to our biggest questions rarely ever lie on the surface. You have to work hard to uncover the truth behind what you’re looking for, whether it be improvising a secondary use for a tool or resource or looking at a problem from an altogether different angle.
Nowadays, we’re often taught a singular approach to solve problems as the “tried and true” way to do things. Reading fantasy pushes us to delve further and unlock creative ways to solve everyday issues.
3.) Able to Better Anticipate Other People’s Social Motivations and Tendencies
In addition, fantasy readings offer pages and pages of character dialogue and behavior explicitly aligned with what they aim to accomplish. Over time, you’ll recognize that these characters—regardless of whether they’re protagonists or antagonists—often implement similar strategies to get what they want.
Although these strategic tactics pertain specifically to the circumstances within the fantasy narrative, the premise behind these strategies can be applied to the broader context of real life.
For example, one persuasive tactic I’ve seen on multiple occasions in the book I’m reading now is reciprocity. In Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson, one of the main characters, Dalinar, attempts to form a coalition between powerful individual kingdoms to unite against a looming threat on the horizon. The only problem is that each kingdom has its own agenda and is reluctant to give up power to other political figures.
Dalinar recognizes this and appeals to the motivations of each kingdom by providing unprompted assistance. He uses his soldiers to help rebuild a foreign city. He helps fortify a contested allied position that’s left vulnerable to the enemy, even though the alliance has not yet been formalized.
These acts of service help further the coalition efforts because the other kingdoms feel compelled to return the favor, the very premise behind the persuasive tactic of reciprocity (source).
This is just one example of how you can learn how to appeal to other people’s social motivations. Other persuasive tactics are harped upon in fantasy, including social proof, emphasis on scarcity, and projecting an air of authority. It’s one thing to read about these tactics online, but it’s another to see these socialization methods laid out in a descriptive story.
4.) Shows You How to Craft Convincing Arguments that Apply to the Real World
Fantasy stories also demonstrate to readers how to form compelling arguments that bolster whatever claim you’re trying to make.
Using logic and reason to solidify a particular stance on a controversial area is a unique skill in the real world. Every day, the news is filled with controversial topics related to religion, politics, and moral dilemmas.
To identify with a particular position or side, you need to use the information that you have to form a concrete argument for why you identify with your current stance. This way, when you’re prodded for answers about why you believe what you believe, you can communicate to people the exact reasons you came to the conclusions you did.
If you haven’t noticed already, fantasy books are based around conflict. Characters are constantly bashing heads—mentally and physically—when it comes to what their individual intentions are. Without conflict, there would be no story to speak of.
Although these conflicts may have imaginative properties to them, they often use real-world approaches to fix these issues. Oftentimes, the author deliberately includes a rationale as to why each character does what they do.
Not only does this further the characterization aspect of the novel, but it also makes the story more realistic. Every action has an argument behind why they did it. After reading hundreds to thousands of these arguments presented by fantasy writers, you’ll inevitably get a feel for how to rationalize your thoughts and beliefs in real-life scenarios.
5.) More Equipped to Relay Your Ideas to Other People Through Language
Furthermore, the themes and ideas presented in fantasy stories often resonate with readers because of their potential applications to real life. By exposing themselves to these ideas, people can better formulate their thoughts on these matters and put them into words.
It’s always a major struggle trying to unravel the deep, complex mysteries of life. Sometimes, it may even seem that words aren’t enough to depict the message you’re trying to convey. Reading can help you find these words and voice your opinion in an educated, thoughtful manner.
Renowned fantasy writers are the best in the business at relaying their thoughts through language. It takes exceptional talent to illustrate an imaginary world that defies the laws of physics with descriptive language alone.
Reading fantasy can help you take after these fantasy writers. After all, you’re with these authors for hundreds of pages. Eventually, you will absorb some of their language skills and incorporate them into your own communication skill set.
There’s a growing emphasis placed on social intelligence in our day and age now that you can connect with anybody by tapping at a phone screen. For this reason, this type of intelligence is something that you should not overlook.
6.) Diversifies Your Perspective on a Variety of Important Everyday Subjects
An expansion of perspective is yet another mental boost that results from reading fantasy. Perspective is crucial in today’s world because it forces people to look outside the box. When you’re too narrow-minded and unwilling to venture outside of a skewed perspective, it can be challenging to find alternative solutions to everyday problems.
Fantasy helps young readers, mainly because they don’t yet have a well-rounded perspective to see problems differently. Their lack of experience and perspective makes it hard to apply their current knowledge and skills to real-life situations.
As an example, fantasy books tend to showcase the coming of age theme. Young adults are constantly on the hunt for answers regarding who they are and who they want to become because of their lack of perspective. Consequently, fantasy stories that feature this theme resonate with young adult readers.
By presenting young adult readers with a coming-of-age story, they are opened up to a like-minded perspective. They can see how the protagonist (or antagonist) handles the trials of youth.
Through these fictional characters, they can agree or disagree with how the character handles situations and develop a better sense of their core values. Ultimately, young adults can base their whole persona on these core values, strengthening their identity and decision-making skills.
All this talk of identity and perspective makes readers smarter because they can use their knowledge of the self to tackle everyday challenges. It’s a lot harder to solve problems when you don’t even know your individual perspective on specific issues.
7.) Learn About Real Historical Events in a More Relatable, Comprehensive Context
Many people fail to realize that a considerable amount of popular fantasy texts draw inspiration from actual historical events. Since not many people are too familiar with history, it’s easy for people to gloss over this fact.
I don’t know about you, but history was never a subject that I was extremely fond of in school. When a thick history textbook was plopped down in front of me, I immediately felt a sense of dread rather than euphoria. Needless to say, I didn’t do many textbook readings on history.
If you’re like me, you may not have a strong urge to delve into the archives of history at first. Fortunately, reading fantasy can help to turn the tides around.
For all of you Game of Thrones fans out there, George R.R. Martin has actually admitted that history played a massive role in the plot developments of the series.
*If you haven’t read A Song of Ice & Fire, skip this section! The paragraphs below contain significant spoilers for A Song of Ice & Fire.
For example, one of the pivotal moments of A Song of Ice & Fire, The Red Wedding, was inspired by Scottish history (source). The Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glencoe were genuine acts of betrayal that resulted in heavy bloodshed. Each of these historical atrocities is somewhat overlooked in mainstream culture. Martin recognized the intrigue of these events and spun them into the Red Wedding.
It can be hard to relate the magnitude of some moments in history because we aren’t socially or emotionally connected to the event itself. When you’re reading from a textbook, there’s nothing that draws you into the narrative.
Fantasy brings an element of relatability to historical events. Personally, the Red Wedding helped to spark a fascination with history that I didn’t think I had. After recognizing that history is filled with ludicrous stories, like the Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glencoe, I had to delve into it more.
Without fantasy, I would’ve never truly understood how catastrophic these events were. My emotional investment into the Game of Thrones characters helped me better relate to this historical event. There are many other examples of this out there. It’s just a matter of reading more fantasy stories to unearth these historical gems.
8.) Stimulates Curiosity, Which is the Very Foundation of Knowledge
Another way that reading fantasy makes you smarter is that it spurs on people’s curiosity. Every fantasy narrative revolves around wonder. These stories analyze the hypotheticals of the world, provoking people everywhere to think bigger.
In the absence of curiosity, it isn’t easy to acquire complex, useful knowledge. The best learners in this world are often the most curious. This is certainly no coincidence, as there’s a direct correlation between levels of curiosity and obtaining knowledge.
There have even been studies to prove this relationship. For example, a study performed at the University of California, Davis asked participants to provide a rating of how curious they were to learn the answers to particular trivia questions. Following the experiments, the results showed that the participants were more likely to remember the information they were the most curious about (source).
Reading fantasy can spark curiosity in a variety of subjects. If you’re reading Red Seas Under Red Skies, for example, you may develop an intense curiosity of the seafaring world. Immerse yourself in the space adventures of the Red Rising series, and you may develop a keen interest in astronomy.
Believe it or not, this is what actually happened to me. After avidly reading the Red Rising series, I realized that I was inquisitive about the makeup of our galaxy. I was so curious that I ended up taking an introduction to astronomy course at university because of it.
In short, I learned a lot more about space as a direct result of having read the Red Rising series. As a side note, I would highly recommend at least giving this series a try. You can check out my no-spoiler review of the first book, Red Rising by Pierce Brown, here at this link.
9.) Fantasy is the Primary Driver Behind Innovation and Evolution
Lastly, fantasy is what inspires societal innovation and evolution. No revolutionary invention was created without delving into the realm of hypotheticals. To create something big, your imagination has to match.
Fantasy takes curiosity to a whole different level because it forces readers to reevaluate our reality and ask, “If this happened, then what would happen as a result?
Curious questions like these plant the seeds for the groundbreaking inventions of the future. Take the Star Trek books and shows, for example. If you’re a fan of this franchise, you’re probably familiar with the replicator. As a quick reference, the replicator is a machine that crafts objects out of thin air and makes them available for use to the Star Trek characters.
Does this concept sound familiar? Chuck Hull, the eventual inventor of the 3D printer, actually admitted that part of his inspiration for his groundbreaking creation stemmed from the replicator in Star Trek (source). This is a classic example of how reading fantasy books can help society trend in the right direction.
Arguably the most extraordinary mind in the world, Albert Einstein, had the following statement to make about the influence of fantasy on societal progression:
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”(source)
If Albert Einstein recognized the intelligible benefits of fantasy, we should follow suit.
Do You Get Smarter from Reading Fiction or Non-Fiction?
To finish off, we’ll discuss the controversial topic of whether fiction or non-fiction is better at making you smarter.
Each reading genre does help to increase intelligence in its own way. For example, non-fiction books allow readers to familiarize themselves with the world as it is. It grants the readers the ability to learn actual facts about how the world worked in the past and how it currently works today. For this reason, people argue that non-fiction books carry superior benefits in intelligence relative to fiction books.
The only problem that I have with this ideology is that it fails to recognize some of the significant points discussed above. Fictional books improve other areas of intelligence, such as emotional and social intelligence, which are equally as important as collecting tidbits of knowledge about the world as we know it today.
Plus, I think the major advantage to fiction is the last point that we discussed: fantasy is the major driving force behind evolution. Non-fiction books may present facts about how the world is today, but it fails to encourage readers to think about what the world could become.
In my opinion, I believe that both fiction and non-fiction literature yield tremendous benefits in intelligence. If I had been forced to choose between the two, I would pick fantasy books above all else. But then again, I don’t read fantasy books for the sake of intelligence. I read them for enjoyment.