In Mark 12:30-31, Jesus summed up the most important rules in Christianity as “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (ESV).
The greatest commandments are just as important now as they ever were, but with modern science we have the advantage of understanding how to fulfill them better than ever! As it turns out, reading a good fiction book is one way to improve love for others.
An important part of loving someone is understanding them; to have empathy for others. What do they feel, or think, and why? Understanding that sort of thing is a thinking ability called Theory of Mind. Everyone has some ability to use their Theory of Mind to understand others, but some are better than others. You’re not stuck with what Theory of Mind strength you have, though. Multiple experiments have shown that reading literary fiction can improve your Theory of Mind .
Reading is a complex mental exercise that engages parts of the brain that are important for other things too. Brain imaging studies have shown that when someone reads about a character moving, the same parts of their brain are used as if they were really seeing someone move ! Reading dialogue engaged parts of the brain important for Theory of Mind, as though someone were really listening to another person speak, and trying to understand the perspective of the speaker .
It seems that being transported into a story mentally and emotionally gives people real experiences that help them understand others better. It has been found that more emotional transportation (being immersed in a story) is an important part of gaining empathy from reading. Test subjects that are given fiction to read have been found to gain more empathy if they experience more emotional transportation while reading . On the other hand, more emotionally transported subjects that read non-fiction had less empathy than those who were less transported . So genre is an important factor here!
Quality of writing is important too. Experiments show that reading fiction books deemed “literature” (National Book Award winners) do increase empathy . “Pop fiction” books (Amazon.com bestsellers) don’t have the same effect, and in fact, some experiments show that reading “pop fiction” has no detectably different effect on empathy than not reading at all . Sorry Stephenie Meyer.
The good news about reading doesn’t stop at improved Theory of Mind; that improvement leads to changes in actions. A study on students in Italy tried to figure out if reading about other cultures could have a positive effect on attitudes towards immigrants . Students were given one book to read over the summer with characters from other cultures presented in positive ways, and after reading that one book the students were questioned about their thoughts and attitudes towards people from other cultures . It was found that reading about other cultures decreased stereotyping, made people want to act more nicely towards people from other cultures, and made people want to be in future contact with people from other cultures . All these benefits just from the experience of reading a book.
On top of improving understanding and kindness towards others, reading can also make us more likely to be truthful with others. In one experiment, researchers read different classic moral stories to different groups of kids, then tested their willingness to lie . It was found that the kids who heard about George Washington being honest with a positive outcome were about 20% more likely to tell the truth than kids who heard a story like “The Tortoise and The Hare” . Interestingly, when the George Washington story was changed to focus on the negative effects of dishonesty, the gains in child honesty were not seen . Again, the way a story is told is important.
So reading has some great potential for benefiting how well we love each other. A good fictional story can strengthen your empathy towards others, make you want to be kinder, and even increase honesty. So put down the Twilight, pick up some Dickens, and love your neighbor as yourself.
 Bal PM, Veltkamp M. 2013. How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PLOS ONE 8(1): e55341.
 Kidd DC, Castano E. 2013. Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science 342: 377-380.
 Lee K, Talwar V, McCarthy A, Ross I, Evans A, Arruda C. 2014. Can classic moral stories promote honesty in children? Psychol Sci. 25(8): 1630-1636.
 Vezzali L, Stathi S, Giovannini D. 2012. Indirect contact through book reading: improving adolescents’ attitudes and behavioral intentions toward immigrants. Psychology in the Schools 49(2): 148-162.
 Wehbe L, Murphy B, Talukdar P, Fyshe A, Ramdas A, Mitchell T. 2014. Simultaneously uncovering the patterns of brain regions involved in different story reading subprocesses. PLOS ONE 9(11): e112575.