In a piece for The New Yorker titled “Can Reading Make You Happier?” Ceridwen Dovey opined that “Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.” Dovey then goes on to write about bibliotherapy, a term coined in 1916, but a concept going as far back as the Ancient Greeks, who, above one library in Thebes, had a very simple yet elegant inscription which read “A healing place for the soul.”
Reading is good for you. Anyone who consumes the written word knows this intrinsic maxim. But now science has weighed in on the subject. As Dovey put it:
Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. 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.
However, does what we read matter as much as the fact that we are reading at all? Dovey goes on to add:
Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans only start to develop around the age of four.
Virginia Woolf, a well-known bibliophile, was perhaps one of the earliest novelists in the English language to understand and reflect this empathy with respect to the psychological impact of war on the individual when she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, providing readers with an unflinching view of the trauma so many young men were going through upon returning home from World War I. As Woolf once put it, a book “splits us into two parts as we read…the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego [and a] perpetual union [with another mind].”
Personally, I think Dovey summed up this whole fiction/bibliotherapy analysis in her article quite nicely when she wrote, “So even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better.”