“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
~James Baldwin, American author (1924-1987)
In The Power of Myth, the late scholar and famous mythologist Joseph Campbell explains that stories help give us relevance and meaning to our lives and that “… in popular novels, the main character is a hero or heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience.”
In response to Campbell’s discussion about how the hero’s journey in myth and literature is about creating a more mature — and better — version of oneself, the distinguished journalist Bill Moyers pointed out how everyday people — “who may not be heroes in the grand sense of redeeming society” — can still relate to a protagonist’s transformation, allowing even the most outwardly meek of us to embark on an inner kind of hero’s journey.
The simple act of reading a novel, then, can give us a psychological shot of courage, encouraging personal growth while reducing anxiety.
In fact, there’s even a term for this phenomenon: bibliotherapy. First coined by Presbyterian minister Samuel M. Crothers in 1916, bibliotherapy is a combination of the Greek words for therapy and books. And now author Alain de Botton has created a bibliotherapy service at his London company, The School of Life, in which bibliotherapists with PhDs in literature introduce people to books that de Botton states, “…are important to them at that moment in their life.”
The author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, a book that explains the significance of literature and how it gives insight into one’s own journey, and Status Anxiety, a nonfiction book about overcoming the universal anxiety of what others think of us, de Botton blends literary fiction and self-help through his bibliotherapy service. Dubbed a “brilliant reading prescription” by de Botton, this therapeutic approach helps encourage emotional healing by matching whatever personal challenges a person is going through with specific literature.
Of course, the concept behind bibliotherapy is nothing new. Inscribed over the door of the ancient library at Thebes was the phrase “Healing place for the soul.” And among the many examples of bibliotherapy practices over time, both Britain and the United States established patients’ libraries in hospitals during the First World War, where librarians used reading to encourage recovery for soldiers with physical as well as mental trauma.
Now, science is proving the mythologists, authors, and librarians right. A recent study at Emory University has shown that novel reading enhances connectivity in the brain as well as improving brain function. Published in the university’s eScienceCommons blog on December 17, 2013 by Carol Clark, the lead author of the study and neuroscientist, Professor Gregory Berns, is quoted as saying, “The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist.” Clark also writes that Berns notes how the neural changes weren’t just immediate reactions, but persisted the mornings after the readings as well as for five days after participants completed the novel.
Good stories, then, not only help us relate to the hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell pointed out, but the act of reading them actually can reconfigure brain networks. This means that not only are we able to escape from our problems while reading, it also increases compassion to another’s suffering — as well as perhaps to one’s own — which can be a major aid to self-growth and healing, as well as helping to decrease anxiety and depression.
Readers have intuitively known this all along. No authors, mythologists, or scientists need to explain to the readers who responded to a question in the Social Anxiety Network (posted in March 2012) about whether reading helps anxiety and depression. As one respondent said, “For me reading lets me escape into another ‘world’ it’s like I become the protagonist,” while another reader shares, “Definitely — it takes me to another world for a while and gets my mind off of obsessing over my problems, anxieties, etc. Reading a good book is always relaxing therapy for me.”
Looking at both the scientific and anecdotal evidence, it’s apparent that researchers and readers are on the same page. So remember that a prescription for your distress may just be an arm’s length away — to your bedside table, where that novel is patiently waiting for you to step inside and embark on your own inner journey.