An avid reader myself, I was overjoyed when I found out that fiction books actually help to cultivate morality. I’d suspected as much just from seeing the benefits in my own life. Books and stories have played a huge part in shaping me to be who I am today. Seeing the research behind the facts though gave me one of those “I knew it!” moments. In fact, there are actually a lot more benefits to reading fiction books than you might realize! Certainly there are more than I ever expected to find.
Ever since Plato tried to ban fiction from his ideal republic, the question “does fiction build morality of individuals or does it break it down?” has been asked. Until recently, we’ve only been able to guess at the answer. Because we read non-fiction with our intellectual guard up, we’re much less able to be moved or persuaded. In contrast, we get so absorbed in fictional stories that we drop our shields, which allows us to be moved emotionally. When we’re moved emotionally, a point is really driven home. For example, most stories show the good guy being rewarded after a struggle, and the bad guy ending up much the worse for wear. This causes us to understand at a very basic level the power of “good”. Fiction mainly shapes us for the better – promoting our ability to understand other people as well as promoting a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds.
History has shown fiction’s ability to change our values at a societal level as well. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” helped spark the Civil War by emotionally moving Americans to show that slaves are people, and slavery is inhumane and cruel.
Apparently the brain doesn’t make much distinction between reading about an experience and actually living it in real life. In both cases, the same neurological regions of the brain are stimulated. Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on (the) minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction – with its endless textured details, imaginative metaphors, and in-depth descriptions of people and situations – offers a particularly rich simulation. In fact, in one way the experience is one completely unavailable to reality: the ability to fully enter into a person’s mind to see what they think and feel what they feel.
Maybe it is because of this experience that fiction has shown to promote empathy. Another body of research proves this point – that the act of reading hones our social skills. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, along with several other scientists, reported the result of two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, which show that those who frequently read fiction seem to be more adept at understanding others, empathizing with them, and seeing the world from another’s perspective. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar showed a similar result in preschool-age children. The more stories that were read to these children, the deeper their ability to understand people and their actions. Truly, brain science shows that the claim to fiction cultivating morality is more accurate than we imagined. As Oatley puts it, fiction serves the function of “making the world a better place by improving interpersonal understanding.”
The old fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem to be frivolous or inconsequential. However, you can see that emerging-science studies have proven time and again that fiction is good for more than a casual enjoyment. By building empathy, fiction helps reduce social friction. In addition to this, stories seem to exert an almost magnetic force, drawing us together around common values and feelings. What a wonderful pastime reading is! Share with your children the joy and values you’ve discovered in reading fiction books. JM Cremp’s has a vast selection of classic, history, and fantasy fiction books that are all just waiting for your child to pick them up and venture into their riveting worlds.