Bibliotherapy: Read and write to heal

Reading and healing have an age-old association. In ancient Egypt, libraries were known as psyches iatreion, “sanatoriums of the soul.” During the Renaissance, the poetry of the Psalms was thought to “banish vexations of both the soul and the body,” according to Italian humanist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. And, as far back as the beginning of the 19th century, the American psychiatric community was discussing reading as a therapeutic technique.

Now, science is starting to prove what readers and writers have long known: Words can help us repair and revitalize our bodies as well as our minds. As a result, bibliotherapy—reading specific texts in response to particular situations or conditions—is becoming more and more popular among psychologists, physicians, librarians and teachers.

Bibliotherapy takes many forms. Doctors or therapists write prescriptions in the context of a practice setting, or individuals explore what works for them at home. The therapy involves reading or writing or both, while the texts are drawn from fiction (Shakespeare, Proust or Rilke, for example) or non-fiction (self-help books). Patients include the young and old, men and women, academics and non-academics.

The conditions for which bibliotherapy is prescribed are just as diverse as its forms. Research has shown that patients suffering from borderline personality disorder engage in significantly less frequent and severe deliberate self-harm when their therapy involves reading a booklet on coping strategies. Adults with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis found that their symptoms lessened in severity after they started keeping journals about their most stressful experiences. Obese adolescent girls who read an age-appropriate novel about a teenager who discovers “improved health and self-efficacy” lost weight more easily than those who didn’t read that novel.

What makes the written word so effective? Some experts believe success lies in a combination of the reading process and the content of what we read. When we immerse ourselves in a text, the words may stimulate the production of mental images. We imagine what characters look and sound like; we visualize the places they live and work; we act out the words on the page in our minds.

Brain imaging studies provide a glimpse of what happens when we get lost in a book. Some of the brain regions active during reading a story approximate the activity of performing, imagining or observing similar activities in the world. When reading, our brains simulate what happens in the story, using the same circuits we’d use if the same things happened to us. On a neurological level, we become part of the action.

Increasing evidence suggests it might be time to add a new twist to an old proverb: Reader, heal thyself.

This is a description of an article that appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Intelligent Optimist. Members can read the full article here. Non-members can become a member here.

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Bibliotherapy: Read and write to heal

Reading and healing have an age-old association. In ancient Egypt, libraries were known as psyches iatreion, “sanatoriums of the soul.” During the Renaissance, the poetry of the Psalms was thought to “banish vexations of both the soul and the body,” according to Italian humanist philosopher Marsilio Ficino. And, as far back as the beginning of the 19th century, the American psychiatric community was discussing reading as a therapeutic technique.

Now, science is starting to prove what readers and writers have long known: Words can help us repair and revitalize our bodies as well as our minds. As a result, bibliotherapy—reading specific texts in response to particular situations or conditions—is becoming more and more popular among psychologists, physicians, librarians and teachers.

Bibliotherapy takes many forms. Doctors or therapists write prescriptions in the context of a practice setting, or individuals explore what works for them at home. The therapy involves reading or writing or both, while the texts are drawn from fiction (Shakespeare, Proust or Rilke, for example) or non-fiction (self-help books). Patients include the young and old, men and women, academics and non-academics.

The conditions for which bibliotherapy is prescribed are just as diverse as its forms. Research has shown that patients suffering from borderline personality disorder engage in significantly less frequent and severe deliberate self-harm when their therapy involves reading a booklet on coping strategies. Adults with asthma and rheumatoid arthritis found that their symptoms lessened in severity after they started keeping journals about their most stressful experiences. Obese adolescent girls who read an age-appropriate novel about a teenager who discovers “improved health and self-efficacy” lost weight more easily than those who didn’t read that novel.

What makes the written word so effective? Some experts believe success lies in a combination of the reading process and the content of what we read. When we immerse ourselves in a text, the words may stimulate the production of mental images. We imagine what characters look and sound like; we visualize the places they live and work; we act out the words on the page in our minds.

Brain imaging studies provide a glimpse of what happens when we get lost in a book. Some of the brain regions active during reading a story approximate the activity of performing, imagining or observing similar activities in the world. When reading, our brains simulate what happens in the story, using the same circuits we’d use if the same things happened to us. On a neurological level, we become part of the action.

Increasing evidence suggests it might be time to add a new twist to an old proverb: Reader, heal thyself.

This is a description of an article that appeared in the October 2010 issue of The Intelligent Optimist. Members can read the full article here. Non-members can become a member here.

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