Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Books Can Heal: Bibliotherapy and The Effect of Reading on the Brain

Reading on the brain: is bibliotherapy good
for our health? Image source.
I'm certain that reading has had a positive effect on my brain, my health and the way I live my life.

I often encourage readers to find positive books to help their wellbeing, problem-solving abilities and attitude to life, but it's worth thinking about the science behind bibliotherapy.

Can books really heal and help the brain? Can they help us feel healthy and live a happy life? This is something that I covered briefly in my ebook, but I think it most definitely deserves a place here on the blog!

Reading has a positive effect on our health

Reading reduces stress levels by 67%, and a 2003 study also claims that reading can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 35%. So, by spending time with a great novel, you are not only helping yourself feel happy and relaxed, you are also looking out for your future elderly self.

Books help us to understand society and live our life fully

Dr. Keith Oatley (both professor and published novelist) has noted that fiction is a useful ‘simulation’ to help us deal with the challenging and confusing social world around us.

Based on his studies of brain scans, literature can teach us how to live our lives the best we can, guiding us in the same way as if a computer simulation would teach us to fly a plane. This makes sense of all the times we’ve felt instructed or illuminated by a novel, comparing ourselves to the bold Elizabeth Bennett or the ungrateful Ebenezer Scrooge.

As fiction can help us through life by acting as a simulation of real-life situations, reading really can improve us as human beings, it seems. What better way to grow up and mature through life than accompanied by great novels to show us the way?

Reading can change our behaviour to match characters

When you “lose yourself” inside the world of a fictional character, you may actually end up changing your own behaviour and thoughts to match that of the character.

In one experiment, researchers 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 found that, in the right situations, experience-taking may lead to real changes, even if only temporary, in the lives of readers.

For instance, readers who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

Let's find our fiction prescriptions!

Isn't it great to think that we can read about inspirational characters and make positive changes in our own lives as a result?

Personally, I've gained so much courage from reading great books. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a book I've praised so much - particularly in relation to my PTSD and anxiety - and Tennyson's "Ulysses" has helped me remain "strong in will" when dealing with my past. Recently, Sarah Moss's wonderful tale of her time in Iceland in Names for the Sea has calmed me down while I've been undergoing changes in work.

On top of the fact that reading can improve our health, understand society a little better and also feel calmer, this makes me so keen to pick up a book.

Could a book a week be the prescription that we're all in need of?

Do you feel that reading has affected your brain and health in a positive way? I'm excited to see what science reveals about bibliotherapy in years to come!


Rivorniel Tinubelin said...

I would very much like to believe that people who read (a lot) have higher level of empathy towards other people, animals, life in general. That such people are more open to possibilities and they probably are not stuck in just some narrow corridors of thoughts. I think this last bit especially goes for people who read fantasy and science fiction books because these really stretch your mind to possibilities beyond.

Love your blog, Lucy, it's like this island of peacefulness and eloquent thoughts in this mess of busy life.

tolstoytherapy said...

I'd like to believe that readers have more empathy too! That's also an interesting point you've made about being more open to possibilities - I'd have to agree with you! Thinking about your comment makes me want to read more sci-fi... I remember reading the brilliant Flowers for Algernon and questioning intelligence and society for a long time afterwards ;)

It means so much that you enjoy reading my blog... creating these posts is my way of relaxing when everything else is hectic! And of course I always look forward to your new posts, especially when there's a lovely mention of my blog in there - thank you so much! I also noticed you've been watching Arrested Development, I've been wondering whether I should start watching it!

I hope life is treating you well :)

Rivorniel Tinubelin said...

Flowers for Algernon is probably in my TOP10 of all time, although I initially read it in a story-form in a fantasy anthology, when I was quite little, and I think it was even better as a story than as a novel (which I also later read), there was no romance lines added to the story and it worked so well, was a lot more "into the gut" kinda effect. I remember when I read the story for the first time and how I was just SOBBING in the end, it felt so sad! And I almost never cry over a book. Oh, brilliant.

I hope you will like Arrested Development, I find it always cheers me up when I feel a little down :) The whole family is comically nuts in the way it makes you appreciate everything you have :)

All the best to you, Lucy.

Brian Joseph said...

Without a doubt even on a very basic level reading is relaxing, healthy and helps us to connect with others.

It is not surprising that folks who read more will show better numbers when these "well being" things like stress level, depression, etc are measured. Though I believe that there is a positive correlation, I do wonder if the effect might be going both ways and if folks who feel better about themselves read more.

tolstoytherapy said...

I definitely agree, Brian, thanks for such an insightful comment! It's interesting to think about the reading-wellbeing connection going both ways... I think you have a point and I find that I read more when I feel better about myself.

tolstoytherapy said...

I must read Flowers for Algernon again - it's probably the most pleasant literary surprise I've ever had ;) The story format sounds great, and I can definitely see why it made you emotional! I seem to recall something similar happening to myself...

Hope you're well!

Repsych said...

I love this post, I'll bookmark it for future reference.

Also, I love all the changes I see in your blog template. Very elegant and very easy to find articles on specific interests! Very well done!

Julie S. said...

YES so much yes! This post is excellent and I shared it :)
Reading has absolutely been my therapy and my creative outlet.

tolstoytherapy said...

Thanks so much, Julie, that means so much! I'm so glad you found my site.

If you have any particular books that have helped you with your creativity (and life itself), it would be great to hear them!

Happy reading,

Sharon Dunscombe said...

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