Are books good for your mental health?

Bibliotherapy is an old concept. According to the Greek historian Siculus, there was a phrase above the entrance to the royal chamber where books were stored by King Ramses II of Egypt. Considered to be the oldest known library motto in the world, ψῡχῆς ἰατρεῖον on, is translated: “the house of healing for the soul”.[1]

In the early nineteenth century,  the use of literature in hospitals for both the “amusement and instruction of patients” was encouraged. By the middle of the century, Minson Galt II wrote on the uses of bibliotherapy in mental institutions, and by 1900 libraries were an important part of European psychiatric institutions.

Bibliotherapy or reading therapy is a mental health intervention. These are structured book-reading programs run by clinics, libraries, or schools aimed at promoting recovery in people with mental health difficulties. The term bibliotherapy is also used to refer to self-initiated book reading pursued by an individual with mental illness.

Does it work?

Studies found a decrease in depressive symptoms after a program of bibliotherapy [5]. Interestingly, several studies indicate that reading works of fiction can be of particular benefit to people with or without mental health difficulties. These studies indicate that reading fiction can increase reader empathy, social skills, and inter-personal understandings. Reading promotes the Theory of the Mind, what means that you are able to get into the mind of someone else. While reading stories of others the story can transform you, educate you but also make you understand the viewpoint of another person. For me reading opens my world and my brain. I can connect to others in a safe way. Reading about depression gave me besides psycho-education, recognition for my own struggles.

“People are interested in escape,” says Carol Fitzgerald of the Book Report Network [2]. “In a number of pages, the story will open, evolve and close, and a lot of what’s going on in the world today is not like that. You’ve got this encapsulated escape that you can enjoy.”

Reading and the brain.

The changes in the brain caused by reading a novel were registered in the left temporal cortex, an area associated with receptivity for language, as well as the primary sensorimotor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with tricking the mind into thinking it is doing something it is not, a phenomenon known as grounded or embodied cognition [3]. 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.

Reading about recovering or dealing with mental struggles in the face of hardships can inspire the reader and connect their experiences to their own.

What does research say?

Researchers took fMRI scans of the brains of 21 undergraduate students while they rested. Then the students were asked to read sections of the 2003 thriller novel “Pompeii” by Robert Harris over nine nights. The students’ brains were scanned each morning following the nightly reading assignment, and then again daily for five days after they had finished the book.

The scans revealed heightened connectivity within the students’ brains on the mornings following the reading assignments. The areas with enhanced connectivity included the students’ left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with language comprehension, as well as in the brain’s central sulcus (the big grove), which is associated with sensations and movement.

reading-brain

Why is that quite surprising? The front bank of the sulcus contains neurons that control movement of parts of the body. The rear bank contains neurons that receive sensory input from the parts of the body. Enhanced connectivity here was a surprise finding, but it implies that, perhaps, the act of reading puts the reader in the body of the protagonist.

Reading a good novel allows your imagination to take flight. Novels allow you to forget about your day-to-day troubles and to transport yourself to a fantasy world that becomes a reality in your mind’s eye.

At a minimum, we can say that reading stories—especially those with strong narrative arcs—reconfigures brain networks for at least a few days. It shows how stories can stay with us.

Why do people read?

The joy of reading to people comes from entertainment, enjoyment, education, enrichment, escape, and the way it eases life in a stressful world. Overall, their answers broke down this way [4]:

  • 26% of those who had read a book in the past 12 months said that what they enjoyed most was learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information.
  • 15% cited the pleasures of escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment they got from using their imaginations.
  • 12% said they liked the entertainment value of reading, the drama of good stories, the suspense of watching a good plot unfold.
  • 12% said they enjoyed relaxing while reading and having quiet time.
  • 6% liked the variety of topics they could access via reading and how they could find books that particularly interested them.
  • 4% said they enjoy finding spiritual enrichment through reading and expanding their worldview.
  • 3% said they like being mentally challenged by books.
  • 2% cited the physical properties of books – their feel and smell – as a primary pleasure.

In their own words, respondents were eloquent and touching. One respondent noted:     “I am an English teacher, so I read to save my sanity from grading essays.” Those who talked about quiet entertainment tended toward phrases like “a stress-free escape,” “a nice way to relax,” “I read because it’s not work,” “diverting, entertaining and educational,” and “It draws me away from reality.” That was echoed by a respondent who said reading “takes you away, like a movie in your head.” One respondent said he liked reading “because it helps me with my temper and relaxes me.” And another described the pleasure of “losing myself” in a book, while another said “it’s a good way to have an adventure.” One compelling summary thought came from a respondent who declared: “I love being able to get outside myself.” [4]

And you? Why do you read? Do you enjoy reading and what is your current read? Tell me in the comments, I’d really like to know.

Ashley from MentalHealth@Home has written ‘Managing the Depression Puzzle’ a holistic view on how to manage depression. From her site: ‘The idea is to give you a bunch of different pieces that you can pick from to put together your own unique  depression puzzle. Topics covered include medications (for both major depressive disorder and bipolar depression), treatments like ECT and TMS, different forms of therapy, activation, mindfulness, and self-care’.

Resources and other reads.

Blog about bibliotherapy. Recommendations for tough times. Loneliness. 

[1] Lutz, C. (1978). “The oldest Library Motto: ψῡχῆς Ἰατρεῖον”. The Library Quarterly. 48 (1). JSTOR 4306897.

[2] Online article ‘Reading fiction improves brain connectivity and function’

[3] Online article: Can reading books improve your mental health?

[4] Online study: The general reading habits of Americans

[5] Online article: Are podcasts the new bibliotherapy?

Picture 1 credits click here.

Picture 2  credits click here.

58 thoughts on “Are books good for your mental health?

  1. Thanks for the mention! ❤️

    I think of reading as a pleasant form of exercise for my brain. I read very little fiction now; I find nonfiction quite a bit easier to read.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re very welcome 🙂
      That is interesting about your preference for nonfiction. I find it more fun (now) to be able to escape in fiction. In the world of books and reading there is something for everybody!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think “reading” is good, but in saying that, I don’t think that necessarily means print-on-paper. I have always preferred non-fictional, perhaps biographical. Perhaps that doesn’t surprise you? At the moment I am getting through a book on climate change. It is hard going because there are lots of facts and figures. My favoured medium is Audible, My favourite time is when bathing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m still in debate with myself on e-books. I think there is a difference between holding and reading a book and listening to a book or story.
      I still prefer a ‘real’ book, fiction is now my fave because I need to relax the mind. But I used to love biographical books.
      I do listen to shorter stories though to fall asleep every night. I think my attention span is not up to listening to longer stories (yet!).
      I would love to listen to books told by Stephen Fry as he has such a good voice.
      Are the people reading the books on Audible good?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sometimes. Sometimes they even have the same book read by different narrators, classics especially. With newer authors, the book tends to be read by them. I guess more established authors can just sell the rights.
        I think reading paper was the best medium of all, but Audible is OK. If is a bit like a book and it’s movie – when it is good, the book is always better. The audiobook is somewhere in between. But not, it is the difference between reading or not. Even my browser, I have managed to configule it so it reads pages out to me, it is just so much quicker than using my eyes.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think you’re very right on the difference between reading or not.
        A lot of people read on their phone or tablet or listen to books or information.
        I’ll be happy when I find a middle ground because I listen more than I read. Mostly of my reading is on WP these days.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I see posts, that I try to get the browser to read to me, this one, before, for example. But sometimes it will not and I haven’t worked out why yet.
        At the very top, it estimates how long it will take to read. I might try running my own posts through it, so I can maybe keep then to a 2 or 3 minute read.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I’ve seen blogs (maybe on Blogger) that display the time of reading. It helps a lot, when it’s a 5 to 10′ read I will definitely read it. 20′ may be trickier for me. Your posts read very well and are not too long in my opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I think bloggers should have more sense if they expect people to read their posts. 10′ is about my maximum. Even if people add a crude, “enough for today”, it’s better than expecting people to read their monologue.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I read for all the reasons cited in your post! Most often, for finding out more about something that interests me, or for the pleasure of a well-written and constructed novel. It’s so satisfying to read something by a highly skilled and original author 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was also pleasantly surprised to recognize all of the reasons. Through your comment I discovered another one, reading helps tremendously with your own vocabulary and writing skills. When reading you learn and improve on so many levels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for putting these facts together. It is amazing how books can give hopes to life. I am having a challenging phase for my mental health and I’ve found that reading fictions is helping me be sane and cheerful. I like your take on this subject and you’ve narrated it beautifully in your blog putting together the facts from various sources.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you so much for your nice comment! I also find comfort in books, as long as my mind can process and I can stay focused for a while I’m already happy. I’m glad you liked my post on it.

        Like

  4. I used to escape into fiction as I was growing up. These days, I tend to only read non-fiction, and mostly specifically books about trauma recovery. I find that I’m less imaginative and maybe I need to build back some healthy fun in my life by returning to fiction books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I try to maintain a balance between fiction and non-fiction. I love it when a book ‘finds’ me. I don’t know exactly how to explain it but sometimes a book pops up and it is at the right place in the right time.
      I prefer fiction these days because of the fun and relaxing part, it can unwind the mind.

      Like

      1. I get what you mean. Sometimes a book happens to be just the exact book I need to read for what’s going on in my life

        I want to get back into enjoying fiction. Fun is important and I deprive myself thinking I should be working harder etc. But everyone needs some fun.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve found it quite humorous that fiction and nonfiction books are certainly good for my mental health, but self-help books rarely are. Lol

    Liked by 1 person

  6. For me I have always been an avid reader since I could read. I found that it has taken some time and the right medication to help my brain manage to read books I love, such as autobiographys, real life experience books. Prior to that I was reading simple style but enjoyable fiction. I have just finished Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright. Now I have just begun James Lovelocks Gaia A new Look at Life.
    I love both non fiction and fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I relate to the brain not being able to read. I used to read so much but somewhere along the way it became difficult and I abandoned it.
      I really like autobiographys too, stories of others are so inspiring. Maybe that’s the reason why I like to blog 🙂
      Your current read sounds interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is has an new introduction which I have found quite taxing to read, I am only just getting to the original introduction, lol. I may only read a couple of pages at one sitting on this if it is difficult for me. Where as Going clean was hard but so fascinating I could not put it down, its very long and the edition I had has small print. That makes it hard for me too sometimes.lol

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post! I’ve always been a reader. I read lighthearted fiction every night before bed. “I just finished “the other Einstein” and am now reading “nine perfect strangers.” In the mornings I read spiritual text or books on healing: “A course in miracles” ” there a spiritual solution to every problem” and the mayo clinics book on fibromyalgia. When I’m cleaning homes I listen to audio books. I just finished “the magic feather effect” It was about science, alternative medicine and placebo effects. Really good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You read a lot, that is so good! I think reading is a nice form of self-care. The magic feather effect sounds really interesting and the other Einstein as well. I’m currently reading a Dutch detective because I thought it would be more easy for my brain than English. But the book is a bit ‘blagh’. 5/10

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s always such a pisser to get a dud of a book! I use an app through my library for the fiction and audio books. the spiritual and health books I buy used copies of because I like to highlight and underline those haha 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I love reading and enjoy it so much especially when I read about biography. My experience is I notice the preference of type of book to read changed over years, especially you have experience more about life. Reading does help to “rewrite” the nerves in our brain, as I would say, from experience. Some times I read about motivation books when I am in down times, it does help a lot. We need some brain dose to strengthen our believe and mind. I also find that gardening does help to calm myself, I found the life step become slower when I spend my time in the garden cleaning the lawn and etc. It’s like the world had suddenly slow down and we can temporary leave behind all the work stress.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gardening is a beautiful way to relax, to unwind the mind and to make a connection with nature. It is very true that we can leave the stress behind for a while. The connection with nature is something very special. Thank you for your answer, I’ll try to do some gardening when spring/summer comes around.

      Like

  9. I was forced to go to Summer School one year because my reading was so far behind. It helped me realize I was reading the wrong things and I picked a book that interested me for the first time. That was it, I fell in love. Any spare moment I had after that I was in the library. At the moment I am re-reading The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is the clue, you need to find that good read. I struggle sometimes with books that are not so good and I hope they will get better and keep on reading.
      But the real reading experience should be the one that you described. Thank you for commenting and for the reading tip 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I am a reading fiend, yet my experience with how that impacts mental health has been complicated. Generally, I read for nearly all the reasons stated above. I crave getting a view of this strange immersive dream we call life from different angles as well as ones close to my own. Learning something new factually or exposure to new imaginative concepts thrills me, and I enjoy analyzing how the writing works as I read. A good read can make me glow.

    However, if I read too much, especially books by certain authors, it can actually make me anxious and detached. This response can be a useful challenge if I’m feeling strong and want to stretch my boundaries. Not so much if I’m already shaky or going through a lot of stress, so in those cases I know I need to avoid pushing things. It’s all about reading myself as well as the books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Reading yourself as well as the books’ that is such a profound answer. Books are indeed telling and not only about them. They are not mere objects as they make a connection with us.
      Mostly I find a book good or bad and that’s it but once in a blue moon I like a book but it starts to go in a direction that unsettles me. That’s a shame but I need to put it away then. I totally forgot about those books. Thank you for bringing that nuance to the post, it is an important one.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for this well-researched post, Kachaiweb!
    May I repost it together with an article I reposted a few months ago on how reading builds empathy, please?
    Best,
    Shira

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post! Thank you for sharing. I have always had the impression that reading was good for my mental health but never actually heard/ read too much about bibliotherapy so this has been pretty interesting. And – it makes me want to read even more.

    😀 Also I am glad to see that I am not the only “weirdo” who likes reading books because of the way they smell or feel hahaha few years ago, I decided to buy a Kindle but …I just could not use it and that’s when I realized how important it was for me to actually feel the texture and the smell of a book! Like..obviously I wouldn’t say this is the biggest reason why I read cause that would be more for entertainment or for escaping reality but still..it’s super important for me.

    and well…at the moment I am reading a Hungarian novel: Mercy, from László Németh. What’s your current read?

    Cheers,

    Mark

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have that feeling too, for books. I need to hold them, feel them, take them with me. I guess I like them more than reading on a device is that they can’t ‘change’. It it that book and nothing more, that comforts me. I just finished ‘Nighttrain to Lisbon’ by Pascal Mercier and now I’m reading ‘Managing the depression puzzle’ by Ashley from MentalHealth@Home. I’m glad you liked my post, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. That’s a good question, why do I read? I could actually relate to just about every answer in the list. I think for the most part though it is an escape from harsh realities. It always has been. I don’t know how often I escaped a world that felt unsafe by going in my bedroom and laying down with a good book. Scholastic books made a fortune off of me (well my parents) when I was in elementary school!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Not as much as I would like, but I am getting better. My dad introduced me to the Kindle and I like that better. Not so heavy and easier to turn the page. I’d say I’m lazy, but I have weak wrists. Love when I do though. Reading a “post-apocalyptic” piece now and a book on mind maps.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One of the joys of reading for me at least, is being able to sit comfortably and relaxed. When pain is involved the fun flies out of the window. Glad you found a good solution! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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