Like most cities, my hometown, Vancouver, was on complete lockdown during the spring of 2020. We all yearned for similar things: to see friends, for a normal school life, to secure a steady source of income, and for life to go back to the way it was before. Not only that, but I felt the irrepressible urge to coldwater scuba dive again for the first time in nearly two years.
This would not have happened if the works of the French novelist and proclaimed “father of science fiction” Jules Verne had not piqued my interest. In a fit of boredom, I had rummaged through the shelves of my parents’ home office to find the familiar aroma of old glue binding together the same classic stories they loved when they were my age. I was looking for something timeless, removed from the confines of pandemic regulations. This moved me to reach for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne’s classic novel that marvels at marine biology and the moral ambiguity of lonely adventurers like Captain Nemo.
It took me on an adventure through not just the ocean, but also its significance in the minds of each character, all drawn from Verne’s capacity for creativity. Along with Captain Nemo and Professor Aronnax, I navigated through a luminous kelp forest in early prototypes of diving suits; had profound discussions about Captain Nemo’s relation to other human beings as an eternally solo traveller; and let their submarine, the Nautilus, take us on surprise trips using technologies that would someday inspire later generations of ocean adventurers to follow in Captain Nemo’s footsteps.
Late into the night, I lay on my bedroom floor and put myself in Verne’s shoes. I tried to walk through how anyone could so meaningfully explore what it means to devote one’s life to studying the natural world without having experienced those adventures firsthand.
I found a kindred spirit in all the characters; Verne did an excellent job convincing me that they all might as well be real people because he was so willing to use his imagination. His book removed me from the confines of my physical world, yet still broadened my understanding of that world through a scientific lens. I carried him and his characters with me as I studied water pressure physics, marine ecology, and equipment engineering textbooks in preparation for my scuba diving certification courses.
Thinking unconventionally drives innovation. So why not source inspiration for scientific discoveries from unconventional places? 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is just one example of dozens of fiction books that have inspired me to pursue different aspects of science.
Well-written fiction encourages scientific professionals to understand the social implications of the work that we do. It explains wonderfully the unknowns that we cannot quantify, and — almost like a literary research conference — broadens our understanding of the sciences by sparking curiosity for subjects we never knew were worth investigating, let alone existed. As somebody who studies life sciences, reading fiction makes me a more empathetic, creative, and inquisitive scientist.
The science of stories
Beyond inspiring curiosity for the sciences, I consider the novels I read to be a unique form of qualitative research. I enjoy reading novels because they use metaphors instead of mathematics to explain concepts we cannot quantify, which is an asset to science. While research articles give us insight through data, novels combine data with analysis on how characters’ relationships with their communities evolve as they face adversity.
If you are a science student, you are likely waiting for a statistical argument for this. I recently stumbled upon a new sub-discipline of cognitive science — interchangeably called ‘story science’ or ‘literary neuroscience’ — which studies how reading fiction rewires our brain. Since all humans have the gift of neuroplasticity — defined as the brain’s capacity to change and develop throughout one’s life — why not leverage it to become better scientists?
Scientific research and data are not the only ways to inspire creativity and innovation. Common literary devices can do this too, in unexpected ways — even for those who are used to reading scientific articles and think primarily in numbers. As the scientific community is slowly catching on to this pattern, more researchers are attempting to study the relationship between the novels we read and our outlook on the world.
The evolution of story science began far before contemporary research. Plot patterns — also known as literary inventions or devices — have been written into novels for millennia. This was first acknowledged on paper when Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher and polymath, published a literary treatise called Poetics circa 335 BCE. Poetics was originally intended to summarize literary inventions commonly found in short and epic poetry, but story scientists have drawn many similarities between the structures of all kinds of fiction, poetry, and prose.
One of Aristotle’s central arguments was that literary devices used in fiction can be used to represent real-world concepts or objects and inspire a shift in the reader’s mindset, which he called ‘mimesis.’ He proposed that an author produces a complete story by using metaphors, plot, and scenery instead of factual descriptions to explain daunting topics, including death and inequality. Aristotle argued that all the best works of fiction at the time contained these key elements.
If scientists find patterns in data, authors have found patterns to what makes a novel click, as Aristotle pointed out in Poetics. When I read a novel, I consider how I might empathize with the characters and reflect on how we might adapt to each other’s differences if we meet in real life. I can apply what I learn from them in the novel to improve my future work as a scientist.
Stories are a lesson in empathy
If reading novels has inspired curiosity in people for generations, there must be a neurochemical basis to it. Story science explores how reading different literary genres and stories with different elements, in addition to how we consciously choose to read a book, alters our cognition.
According to leading literary neuroscientist Natalie Phillips, a professor at Michigan State University and founder of the school’s Digital Humanities program, our brains change more when we intentionally analyze what we read than when we read casually. In a 2018 book titled Jane Austen and the Sciences of the Mind, Phillips describes a series of studies she and other researchers conducted, where they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track the brain activity of participants as they did either a casual browse or deeper analysis of a passage from Austen’s Mansfield Park. The data showed that close readers experienced higher brain activity in regions associated with movement and touch, as if they were a character in Austen’s narration.
While researchers are still learning how fiction rewires the brain, they’ve found that reading fiction is repeatedly correlated with generally positive social behaviours and higher empathy. Data from recent neuroscience studies also shows that fiction activates the same neural networks we use when we interact with others in any capacity — whether we are resolving or mediating conflict, trying to find meaningful questions to ask in a conversation, or making new friends.
One neural pathway, called the default mode network (DMN), is responsible for helping us consider how our decisions might make others feel and why. People who can easily do this are said to have a higher theory of mind — the ability to correctly attribute mental states to ourselves and others, which plays an important role in social interactions — than those who cannot.
In 2016, Diana Tamir et al. used fMRI to show that readers’ DMN is also activated when they read fictional scenes containing vivid imagery or social interactions. They also demonstrated that frequent fiction readers score significantly higher on moral judgement tasks than both non-readers and readers of primarily non-fiction. When participants were given hypothetical scenarios where there was a risk of harm, fiction readers chose to minimize harm to help others more than the latter two groups.
What if we could translate the lessons we learn from our favourite stories to our work endeavours? Recently, neuroscientists have investigated why successful authors continue to use certain literary devices: they leave lasting impressions on readers by giving them a higher emotional experience. Although we may not remember the details of the best stories, as we watch their characters cope with hardship, we empathize with them, and that — empathy — is what we take away.
Take one of the most famous and common literary devices, as described in Poetics: the plot twist. The Greek word, peripeteia, literally translates to “to fall around” or “to change suddenly,” indicating an abrupt reversal of good fortune — giving us a tragic story.
Fiction makes research more equitable
While reading statistics about different demographics has taught me who science should be helping more, fiction also contextualizes human experiences that we might miss when we only collect quantitative data. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, another novel that I read recently, clearly sets out an example of this.
Based heavily on post-World War II- and Cold War-era South Korea, the novel recounts the story of the haenyeo — women in the province of Jeju who make a living by diving for food. Partway through the book, after a beloved member of the haenyeo sustains permanent brain damage while diving, the story explores how her relationships with others change. The mixture of grief, shame, and enduring love that her family members express helps frame her disability as a series of experiences, and not as an isolated event. On the other side, contemporary science mostly treats disability as the latter.
Works of fiction deconstruct this perspective in metaphors. Now, scientists are starting to reframe disabilities as a group of differences that can be accommodated. They’re starting to understand that other aspects of a person’s lifestyle, including poverty or country of residence, can aggravate accessibility barriers.
Everyone experiences disability differently, has different levels of access to community healthcare, and has a different relationship with the healthcare system, as a result of fear, cultural and accessibility barriers, and other unique individualized challenges. These circumstances can affect the ways individuals with disabilities can access and benefit from the services available to them. Even as a volunteer, my advocacy work for neurodiversity has taught me how family and social life determine whether children can even benefit from well-developed disability accommodation services.
Empathy makes for higher-quality research
Plot twists and resulting changes in characterization not only make for a more intriguing read but have helped me learn how to anticipate and cope with one of the most confusing variables in science: whether the demographic we target in studies actually benefits from our work.
I read George Orwell’s 1984 for the first time this year, which explained to me why people under authoritarian regimes must carefully guard their secrets and relationships to survive. Winston, the protagonist, made a brief, clandestine effort to rebel against the government for continuously rewriting history according to their will — until his trusted friends reported him. I held small bouts of hope for his future when he ventured inside an antique store containing relics of creative expression from pre-authoritarian times, and when he found a lover at work, but Orwell took my hope away as quickly as he instilled it. The visceral reaction I got from reading 1984 compelled me to reflect upon the fact that people who are being oppressed, or in socially disadvantaged situations, may be extra cautious with working with outsiders, such as researchers and scientists.
In clinical studies, which collect data from human participants, a sample’s size and representativeness are particularly important variables, as they determine how accurately the study can represent real-world demographics. Most biomedical research has been historically conducted on white men, even when scientists have aimed to create medications and treatments targeted toward other demographics. Now, scientists are trying to broaden their participant criteria to include underrepresented minorities.
During my work at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute this summer, I met biomedical researchers in every imaginable sub-discipline of medicine, including maternal health in the Global South, sudden onset neurodegenerative disorders in adolescents, and cancer cell cultures. I had the privilege of attending weekly seminars run by the Global and Women’s Health Research Institutes, where some of Canada’s best clinician-scientists based in the city lectured about their outreach in rural areas in BC and around the world.
All these groups of scientists identified a common barrier to improving data quality: a small sample size. Although lecturers’ study teams mailed prototypes of simple, portable screening tools directly to their patients so they could perform tests in the comfort of their homes, patients were still nervous to submit their results. Knowing that lab volunteers were available to answer questions about product usage, our presenters inferred that patient nervousness did not necessarily stem from test design but from a lack of trust for mainstream healthcare research. Acknowledging this barrier was an important first step to repairing intercultural relations between Canadian scientists and communities who do not have ready access to screening tests in BC.
From a logistical standpoint, it is also time-consuming to mail hundreds of screening tests to patients, and without a high return of data, research teams risk facing rejection for future grant applications, inhibiting them from continuing their research. The Canadian Institute of Health Research, the federal government’s grant funding agency, accepts under 20 per cent of grant applications — and unfortunately, sparks of scientific curiosity are not enough to set one’s application apart from competitors. Therefore, it is also in scientists’ best interests to investigate why sample sizes quickly dwindle when working with historically marginalized groups — possibly through fiction.
Finding the middle ground
So, what do sample sizes, trust, and barriers to cultural understanding have to do with my love of fiction?
Pure logicians and creative brains may constantly argue with each other whether standard deviation calculations or emotional prose provide us with a more holistic understanding of our world’s problems, but I believe in a middle ground.
While approaching community members and asking them about their experiences is the most direct way to accommodate their needs, good fiction or non-fiction narrative authors can use appropriate characterization to show why communities might continue to distrust outsiders.
The Island of Sea Women also illustrates this tension well. The novel also tells the story of an American team of scientists travelling to Jeju to measure the haenyeo’s tolerance for cold water, and comparing it with the average American’s tolerance. The youngest haenyeo were the most eager to interact with the scientists, asking questions about their equipment and methods, while those who were older reluctantly participated.
Jeju residents worried that American interference in Korean politics would jeopardize the haenyeo tradition; United States, at the time, was fighting in the Cold War and attempting to reform the Korean government. Unlike much of Western society during and before the Cold War, Jeju had a matriarchal society where women were expected to earn income. Partway through the experiment, more haenyeo began to quit because they grew suspicious that the American scientists were attempting to coax their younger members into more intimate relationships. Reading this made the importance of building trust with patients from different cultures become very apparent to me.
Scientists are trained to draw inspiration from unexpected places — including everyday conversation and meeting new people — often connecting variables together in unexpected ways. Reading fiction trains the same pathways. For me, fiction weaves together what makes a worthwhile scientific inquiry and sparks a sense of awe and questioning about the natural world. At the same time, however, it challenges me to reconsider how people interact with the world depending on their circumstances and, through prose, it teaches me how to use science to serve — and not intimidate — society.
When scientists understand how the populations they are serving interact with their investigations, they not only produce more reliable data and become increasingly satisfied with their own work, but they also can distribute the positive impact of their work more effectively among those who are traditionally marginalized.
I do not believe that reading fiction is the only way to better understand others. In fact, I believe conducting honest conversations with the communities we wish to study is the most straightforward way to do so — but authors can eloquently articulate what most people cannot. In a distinct way, authors can be spokespeople for human experiences in a way that numbers and statistics cannot, and their appreciation for the briefest interactions can teach scientists about their place in new research.