Fiction gives concrete examples of abstract lessons, and your brain doesn’t care if it’s made up.1
One of humanity’s greatest weaknesses is the inability to feel dry, abstract information as strongly as fuzzy stories that may not even be correct.
Imagine if you felt a probability textbook as strongly as your favorite story. Or if you could internalize every lesson from a good advice book without any examples. You’d be unstoppable.
But you can’t. Or if you can, your time is probably too valuable to be wasted on this blog.
Humans react to stories more than facts.
Take the story of the Trojan horse. Here’s the lesson:
Don’t accept gifts from people who may want to harm you.
This has no staying power in your head. By itself, it’s so obvious to not be worth memorizing. And without any concrete examples to ground the abstract lesson, it’s not going to stick in your head for long. Certainly not long enough for it to prove useful.
On the other hand, if you read the Iliad, you can vividly imagine the whole scenario. You can imagine the feeling of the Trojans as they get slaughtered, and resolve to not get suckered like they did.
Fiction also subsumes reality, so you can be treated to simulations of things that have never happened (yet).
Take alternative history. These what-if scenarios let you think about possibilities without the constraint that they had to have actually happened. Nonfiction is just alternative history with the constraint that it actually occurred.
Or epic fantasy. Few if any humans have saved the world. But fantasy characters do it all the time. And you can come to believe that you should try to, too.
It’s not like your brain cares that it’s made up. If it did, I doubt so many people would derive life lessons from The Lord of The Rings.
You can get lessons that are wrong or just plain bullshit. But a lesson is imparted. It’s on you to ensure it’s a worthwhile one.
A lot of these benefits can also be gotten from thinking deeply and an active imagination, but it’s nice to have an author do some of the work for you. ↩