Reading Crime Novels Stimulates Your Brain

Crime novels let you delve into the darkest side of human nature. In addition, they allow you to develop reflective and deductive skills.
Reading Crime Novels Stimulates Your Brain
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Millions of readers worldwide have a passion for detective novels. In fact, when the plot is sufficiently believable, sophisticated, challenging, and even gruesome it sticks in the mind for days. We ponder, reflect, and sharpen our skills of ingenuity and intuition while considering the various suspects. We also find ourselves considering all the possible resolutions in an attempt to tie up all the loose ends.

Large publishers are aware of this fact. That’s because it’s a phenomenon that’s lasted for more than a century. In fact, although we currently have authors like Camilla Läckberg, J.D. Barker, and Donna Leon, the forerunner of this particular genre was Edgar Allan Poe.

Indeed, Poe’s character, Auguste Dupin, was the first to plunge us into the fascinating world of investigation and crime in his classic story, The Rue Morgue Murders. Later, the beloved Agatha Christie arrived on the scene, as well as Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, and Patricia Highsmith. However, what is it about these kinds of novels that prove so addictive for our brains?

Crime novels are cathartic. They allow us to explore the darkest side of humanity and society.

The crime novel often serves as a kind of ‘exorcism’. It talks about the injustices of our society.

A beneficial fatal attraction

Henning Mankell said, in The Dogs of Riga, that there are no murderers, but people who commit murder. That’s probably one of the reasons why we like to read whodunits. They allow us to delve into the darkest area of the human psyche. One that shows that, under certain conditions, we’re all capable of killing.

Jonathan Gottschall, literary scholar and author of the interesting book, The Storytelling Animal, explains that we can’t resist the temptation to gravitate toward alternative worlds. As a matter of fact, from a neurological and even evolutionary point of view, this is something that’s always defined us. We love -and even need- to be told and read stories to escape from reality.

The crime novel takes us into gruesome and dramatic universes that are believable and could actually happen. Indeed, while the fantastic supernatural genre plays with the impossible, the crime genre speaks of the possible. The kind that’s inscribed in many of the injustices that occur today.

Murderous plots bring emotions to the surface

In real life, you avoid certain situations because you know they’re dangerous. However, in books, the author takes you by the hand through the most dramatic scenarios yet you know nothing will ever happen to you. You also find yourself entering the most familiar cities; the same ones that, suddenly, become the context of a drama, a disaster, or a Dantesque (and bloody) scene.

Reading crime novels allows you to experience a whole cocktail of highly addictive emotions. You experience surprise, tension, horror, curiosity, contradiction, fear, and even satisfaction. You might even feel pleasurable revenge when you read about the character of Lisbeth Salander in the universe that Stieg Larsson created for her.

As you read, your brain releases dopamine, as well as serotonin and even endorphins. In fact, you develop an addiction to the storylines. However, it’s a harmless and healthy dependency that you can always satisfy with a new book.

In crime novels, fear or anguish are never annoying or paralyzing. On the contrary, they’re exciting.

Investigating the deepest motivations of human actions

Most readers of this genre like to explore human evil. Indeed, interest in criminology and murder is a well-established phenomenon in our culture. As J.D. Barker, author of numerous psychological thrillers, explains, the evilest monsters, such as serial killers, tend to lead unremarkable, family lives. In appearance, they’re much like any of us.

This image terrifies us. At the same time, it fascinates us. What’s more, reading detective novels can, in some cases make the villain of the plot become a favorite character. Take Hannibal Lecter, for example. However, reading gives us a cognitive safety net: we can admire the evil without doing ourselves any harm.

Woman reading in the field
In murder novels, we try to understand the criminals’ motivations.

Crime novels allow us to investigate current society

The genre of the thriller or crime novel isn’t only a channel for investigating human evil. It’s also an ideal setting for delving into social injustice and corruption. In fact, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many journalists jumped into the publishing world in order to denounce and bring to light real events that were taking place in the shadows of society.

Mafias, prostitution, pederasty, political corruption… Many of these novels revolve around problems that are current and of interest to readers. Furthermore, Washington and Lee University conducted a study that claims that reading books enhances empathy and prosocial behavior. As a matter of fact, opting for a crime novel can even reinforce our sense of justice.

Many of those readings that are within the canon of the crime genre are authentic research works by their authors. This generates great expectations in the reader. That’s because we always have the feeling that any resemblance to reality is certainly no coincidence.

Crime novels allow you to develop a critical and reflective mind

If you’ve spent decades collecting detective novels, in the end, you develop the insight of Hercule Poirot and the sense of smell of Kurt Wallander. The mental stimulation that these readings provide is immense. They facilitate the improvement of your reflective capacities, critical sense, analysis of small details, and even your deductive skills and imagination.

Finally, regardless of whether or not you’re a real lover of this subject, you should always try and have a book nearby. That’s because reading is a savior. It provides a refuge from which you always emerge unscathed yet, at the same time, feeling incredibly enriched.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Johnson, Dan. (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences -Doi. 52. 10.1016/j.paid.2011.10.005.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan (2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner Books

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.