Picking up a book may be just what the doctor ordered
There’s a growing trend in the world of therapy that you may not have heard of, and it’s likely to grab your attention. It’s called bibliotherapy and a new study suggests it can be extremely effective in treating those struggling with anxiety, depression, grief and other psychological issues.
Bibliotherapy is defined by the American Library Association as “the use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance.”
“Bibliotherapy provides the opportunity to identify with how characters feel and think, and the intention behind the choices they make,” says Lori Osborne, an Advocate Medical Group mental health clinician at BroMenn Medical Center in Bloomington, Ill. “Through this process, the reader can gain insight, empathy and knowledge into how to deal with situations in their own life. By identifying with a character’s plight, the reader learns they aren’t alone in their struggle, giving them hope to work through it.”
The study, conducted at the University of Toronto and published in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal, found that reading—and specifically, reading fiction—can lead to significant improvements in empathy and theory-of-mind.
The researchers studied areas of brain activation and found that the same areas were used in both comprehension of stories and the understanding of other people, and thus reading literature could help build empathy.
“Fiction has a flexibility that is not bound by facts and figures,” says Dr. Michael Aisenberg, a clinical therapist at Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “A fictional story loses its tight grip on fact and reality, offering a flexibility that allows the reader to mold and shape the circumstances to his or her own needs.”
A book’s content, which often involves complex human characters and their unique situations, as well as their interactions in the social world, allows the reader to take a piece of consciousness for themselves—essentially building on their own experiences and knowledge.
“I imagine that books teach by allowing readers to safely explore imaginary worlds that have points of connection and use the characters as representing surrogates for their own, real-life experiences,” adds Dr. Aisenberg.
“In reading fiction, we are given the opportunity to view the world from viewpoints that differ from our own singular perspective, and we are challenged to connect the dots—to make sense of the characters and forge an understanding of why they do what they do,” says Dr. Gabrielle Roberts, a clinical psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. “The process of active inference and engagement with the story and characters exposes us to situations wherein we are able to practice this skill of using cues and suggestion to understand emotion. This process has been shown to result in skill development in real life situations.”
So curling up on your beach towel with a good book this summer can be more than a healthy distraction—it can help you better understand yourself and the world around you.
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