Those of us who have spent our lives folded between the pages of a book will know that reading comes with its own source of intellectual and emotional rapture. Through reading, we have the power to transcend our daily lives and into the lives of those who can only be accessed through the imagination. Many of us know how important it is to read regularly for overall brain health. Yet, it may come as a surprise that the simple act of reading can produce exceptional mental health benefits as well. Various social scientists have discovered the powerful link between reading and cognitive functioning. In more recent years, scientists have been trying to research the link between books and the emotional benefits reading can offer.
One genre of books that have been studied more than others is literary fiction. According to several studies, literary fiction allows us to think creatively and to delve deeper into different perspectives. Reading stimulates blood flow to underused areas of the brain, thus making neurotransmitters stronger. Literary fiction also has the ability to improve imagination, allowing us the ability to view ourselves as part of the story or through the eyes of the protagonist. Reading novels may also have the potential to create a more empathetic society. Studies reveal that stories with deep explorations into the psyche of characters improves empathetic reasoning and emotional understanding. One major example of this encouraging effect was discovered in readers of the “Harry Potter” series. Researchers discovered that readers of the series were prone to have higher empathy and more open-mindedness regarding society’s “out-groups”.
The social reasoning cultivated by reading can be a major necessity for maintaining mental health. Not only can reading make us more imaginative and empathetic, but it can also reduce troublesome mental illness symptoms. For example, in one study, those who read for a mere six minutes exhibited decreased stress levels as evidenced by less muscle tension and reduced heart rates. The study focused on several stress-relieving activities such as listening to music, walking, and drinking tea. The researchers found that reading had the most effective results, with it diminishing stress levels by 68%. One potential reason reading may have this profound effect on stress is because it is its own form of meditation, which requires focused, cognitive attention. Fewer studies have been completed pertaining to the relationship between reading and depression. But, it could be inferred that books may offer a transcendent escape from one’s troubles, it can boost intelligence which can lead to more self-confidence, and it allows further self-reflection. Perhaps, indirectly, these benefits can improve the quality of life for those with depression.
Because of the healing power of books, clinicians have now used reading as a tool in psychotherapy: a therapeutic modality referred to as “bibliotherapy.” Reading books and partaking in storytelling has long been in the fabric of human existence. Ancient Greeks revered
their libraries as places of healing and reflection. Reading books from a therapeutic standpoint can be beneficial through both non-fiction and fiction genres. Those on the receiving end of bibliotherapy may read non-fiction books that offer insight into their personal lives or they may read literature that reflects their hardship. For example, a teenager who experiences social anxiety and unresolved trauma may be offered “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky. Someone who is dealing with grief and a loss of purpose may be offered “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Dr. Viktor Frankl. The options are endless. While bibliotherapy can be used to help combat major psychological disorders and painful life changes, it is not always effective for everyone. Those who have no interest in reading or those with difficulties distinguishing reality from fantasy would be less likely to find reading as therapeutic.
While more research needs to be done to fully outline the plethora of reading benefits, there is no doubt that healing can come from something so simple and elemental. For generations, we have all sought solace from stories. It only makes sense that our mental health
would be positively influenced by stories and the very act of reading itself. Those of us who love books have always known about the magic of storytelling. Pick up a book, immerse yourself in a faraway land, and let your imagination soar. Your mental health will thank you.