Books as Therapy

The November 7th issue of Time Magazine has an article Read a Novel: it’s just what the doctor ordered, written by Sarah Begley.   Ms Begley is a staff writer for Time; she writes book reviews and culture stories for the magazine.  She has worked at Newsweek, The Daily Beast and Hearst Magazines.  She lives in the New York City area and is a graduate of Vassar College.

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Sarah Begley

She says, “the latest round of research on the benefits of literature focuses on how it improves not our IQ but our EQ.”  Researchers at the New School for Social Research found a link between ‘theory of mind’ (the ability to know what a person is thinking or feeling) and reading a passage of literary fiction (as distinguished from popular fiction).  Ms Begley continues, “Maria Eugenia Panero of Boston College says it is ‘hard to know whether reading literary fiction increases theory of mind or if people who naturally have a higher theory of mind are more drawn to literary fiction'”.

Ms Begley reports that a 2012 study at Ohio State University had undergraduates read different versions of a story in which a protagonist overcomes challenges (car trouble, bad weather, long lines, etc.) in order to vote.  Those who read a version of the story which led them to identify strongly with the character were more likely to vote in a real election a few days later: 65% reported having voted as compared to 29% of those who read a less relatable version of the story.  The story did affect the behaviour of some readers.

Bibliotherapy, which involves the prescription of novels to ‘cure life’s ailments’, is practices at the School of Life in London.  Ella Berthoud, an artist, and Susan Elderkin, a novelist, are friends from their Cambridge days when they left books for each other to deal with the crisis of the week: be it romance, work stress, or whatever.  Now, while they are not trained at therapists, their clients pay £100 to spend 50 minutes with them, in person or via Skype.  The clients fill out a questionnaire about what they like to read and what is going on in their lives.  “The bibliotherapist makes an ‘instant prescription’ at the end of the session and then sends a list of six to eight books and the reasons for the recommendation a few days later.  They say the feedback is 99% positive.”

Ms Begley concludes: “The science behind reading for mental health is limited, but researchers like Panero are eager to continue exploring the benefits.  ‘I think we all have some intuitive sense that we get something from fiction’, Panero says.  ‘So in our field we’re interested in saying – well, what is it that we’re getting?’  Even the greatest novel cannot cure clinical depression, erase post-traumatic stress or turn an egomaniac into a self-denying saint.  But it might ease a midlife crisis or provide comfort in a time of grief.  As Elderkin says, it’s natural for readers to find it’satisfying when people come up with ‘proof’ of something which they’ve always felt to be true.'”

As for me, I certainly subscribe to the theories presented by Ms Begley in her article.  That is why I write novels like Seeking Father Khaliq.

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