To me, there's never been a good reason to doubt that reading has a huge effect on the reader. Books make their way into the minds of their readers, and rearrange them to suit the narrative. This can be a good thing or a bad thing -- on the bright side, it means that books are a great way to learn about what it's like to experience the world as someone else does, especially when there's no way you could experience that life firsthand.[1. One of my favorite things I read and hear over and over again in Nerdfighteria is John Green's assertion that "Reading is an exercise in empathy," a sentiment he's expressed in different forms and about different subjects (primarily, literature and history) many times.]
On the dark side, though, is that some books are so engrossing that they end up driving huge cultural wedges between the people who like them and the people who don't.[2. I don't think that the problems and complexities of religion can be reduced entirely to this quality, although the compelling fiction of a 'holy' book is a good way to start a religion. But I do think that this is relevant when it comes to rabid Twilight fans/haters and the needless cultural attention paid to whether or not one likes those books.]
Guess what? That belief now has scientific backing!
Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own - a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”
They gave a bunch of students stories about people who faced hardships in order to vote, a few days before an election. Those students then voted in significantly higher proportions than the control group. They also did experiments on empathy through characters of different sexual orientations or race.
They didn't just prove that reading works this way, either -- they also found some of the elements that make a work of fiction more effective. First person stories worked better than third person stories at getting students to vote. It was also more effective when the protagonist went to the same university as the reader, rather than a different one. In the sexuality stories, read by heterosexual males, the most effective stories in creating empathy with homosexuals were the ones where the protagonist's homosexuality was revealed late in the story, rather than being revealed early, or never being addressed.
It also seriously hurts the experience to read in a room with a mirror:
Experience-taking doesn’t happen all the time. It only occurs when people are able, in a sense, to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading, Kaufman said. In one experiment, for example, the researchers found that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.
“The more you’re reminded of your own personal identity, the less likely you’ll be able to take on a character’s identity,” Kaufman said.
“You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity.”
I recommend reading the article -- it's one of the cooler studies I've heard about lately. And remember, reading is good for you.