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. As Woolf, the most fervent of
readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading
consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union”
with another mind.
psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning
home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. ‘Librarians in the
States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice
story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the
same time in the U.K.,’ Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used
in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by
psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.
lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health
and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming
clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery,
in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when
we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone
else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in
the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of
participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display
stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that
experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading
stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the
researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic
tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published
in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary
nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception
and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with
accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans
only start to develop around the age of four.