Since we first learned how to read, we have been taught that books are good for us. They make us smarter, they expand our vocabulary, they teach us how to communicate more effectively and relate to others who are different from us. Besides these benefits, books simply make us feel happier. Avid readers know this to be true, and often say they love reading because of its ability to improve one’s mood and provide a temporary escape from the stress and pressures of daily life. The seemingly magical effects that books provide have, in fact, been backed up by scientific evidence. Through various psychological studies it is becoming clear just how good for us books really are.
Humans have long believed in the ability of books to have a positive effect on the reader beyond education and entertainment. This concept has existed since the days of Ancient Egypt; King Ramses II had a library whose motto was “House of Healing for the Soul.” Since then, the surprising evidence that books may possess healing effects has grown with the findings of various psychological studies and practices throughout history. Following World War I, for example, veterans who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder were given books to help ease the pain of their trauma.
For over a century many psychologists have used books as a component in helping their patients, and this has developed over time into a specialized therapeutic practice involving the prescription of books as a means to treat people with various mental illnesses. The practice, called bibliotherapy, is based upon the idea that books can have positive effects on the mental health of individuals who experience depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. Rather than replace other therapeutic methods, however, it is instead intended to complement those other methods such as talk therapy and writing therapy. What may initially come to mind when one learns of this practice is the assumption that it is based upon self-help books or books with themes of spirituality. This is not always the case, however; perhaps surprisingly, this treatment’s reading diet often comprises fictional novels.
The School of Life, a medical school based in London, United Kingdom, is one such place which provides bibliotherapy with the prescription of specially selected fictional works for individuals experiencing a range of psychological ills. As described by author Ceridwen Dovey in her New Yorker article “Can Reading Make You Happier?”, bibliotherapy sessions begin with answering a series of questions, such as one’s normal reading habits and what issues or worries are currently preoccupying one’s mind. After becoming familiar with the individual’s struggles, fears, and aspirations, a bibliotherapist will compile a personalized list of book recommendations that may offer some solace through their characters’ own relatable journeys. Many patients have sensed the effects of the reading, an activity which Dovey articulates as “one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.”
Reading for affirmation of self identity is particularly beneficial for young readers. It has long been known that reading boosts an individual’s self-esteem and capacity to feel empathy for others, but what is the neuroscience behind this? Dovey describes a study published in the Annual Review of Psychologyin 2011, which revealed that “when people read about an experience, [their brains] display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves.” This helps a young reader to develop an understanding of others’ experiences, as well as a sense of connection and belonging. Children and teens who read frequently also tend to experience less anxiety and depression than those who do not read often.
Besides providing benefits early on in life, habitual reading can also help maintain a healthy brain as one grows older. Reading as a form of exercise for the mind works because, as explained by Dr. Alan Castel in his Psychology Today article “Can Reading Help My Brain Grow and Prevent Dementia?”[, when we read fiction “we use vivid imagery as well as memory to follow a plot,” making it a “very potent form of brain training.” He writes that, according to a six-year scientific study that tested memory in older readers and non-readers, the readers’ risk of memory decline was reduced by over 30% compared to the non-readers. “Those who read the most had the fewest physical signs of dementia,” says Castel, proving books’ unique ability to prolong brain health later in life.
Books have proved to be effective in helping a wide range of mental health issues, from anxiety to depression to dementia, and, though reading is not a “miracle cure” able to replace all other forms of treatment for mental illnesses, it can nonetheless have a positive influence when paired with other treatments. Being a voracious reader in childhood and throughout adult life can lead to a plethora of benefits for years to come. – JP
Jocelyn Pontes is a student at Emerson College, where she is earning a BFA in Writing, Literature, & Publishing. Her life revolves around literature, and she enjoys writing both fiction and magazine articles. She plans to have a career in the editorial branch of publishing, and hopes to write novels, as well. In her free time, Jocelyn loves exploring museums and travelling. You can find her on Instagram.