“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” – Rene Descartes
– by Anonymous Talkspace User
Like many others, I went through a turbulent time during my adolescence. Much of that had to do with standard growing pains, but there were also many external factors involved. This caused me to occasionally go into seclusion for days at a time in an attempt to get my bearings and come to grips with all of the diverse feelings, emotions, and thoughts that flooded my system. It was my way of recharging, regrouping, and preparing for reentry into the world. But I didn’t spend this time moping around. Instead I read, ferociously.
One of the best parts about reading is that it allows you to step out of your head and temporarily experience the thoughts of another entity, fictional or not. If you’re sad, afraid, vulnerable, shy, or anything else for that matter, reading a book that features characters who are going through the same emotions is in many ways cathartic, not to mention extremely therapeutic. For some reason, it’s always easier to gain insight into someone else’s problems than into your own, but applying that insight seems manageable.
Back then, I didn’t realize that using reading as therapy was actually a thing and it had an official name; apparently it’s called Bibliotherapy, and it has been around for quite some time. The Ancient Greeks believed in the healing power of reading and held libraries in almost the same esteem as healers. And in churches as well as monasteries across the world, followers of different religions believed in the healing powers of Holy Texts. Though they probably never thought of this process as bibliotherapy per se, it does not change the fact that is what they engaged in.
Contemporary bibliotherapy began to thrive at the turn of the 20th century. Allegedly, somewhere around 1916, a man by the name of Bagster started dispensing books from his church’s basement, which he thought had certain healing value for the people that received them. Middle-aged clients, for example, were encouraged to read more serious novels, so that the stories provoked them and stirred their thoughts. Since then, the practice of bibliotherapy has certainly evolved, though it still serves pretty much the same purpose.
Prison inmates, elderly people, those with learning disabilities, and many others benefit from the therapeutic and creative outlets books provide for them. And, science has recently confirmed that reading literary fiction is beneficial for children, since it assists in their socialization and improves their emotional intelligence. A lot of that has to do with how books make readers and listeners engage in abstract thinking and exercise their capacity for empathy.
Writing for Scientific American, Julianne Chiaet argues: “This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom.”
Furthermore, in an excellent article for The New Yorker, Ceridwen Dovey writes that: “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.” Other studies have come to the same conclusions.
I’ve always found that books helped me put my own situations in perspective, in part because I had to take on a different perspective every time a new character revealed him or her self in the books I was reading. Having to switch between the inner thoughts of different characters helped me understand how the same situations could be perceived completely differently by two people, and it was an immeasurably valuable lesson to learn.
So, my dearest therapist, do you have any good reading suggestions for my bibliotherapy?
Dear Therapist is an ongoing series of articles. Check out the other posts here!
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