“Bibliotherapy” may be a term that is unfamiliar to you, but it is a unique idea that has both historical and modern scientific support. The term “bibliotherapy” originated in 1916 and essentially means reading for therapy. The term was first used in an article called “A Literary Clinic” in The Atlantic Monthly. The article discussed book recommendations that had a “healing value.” The author described books as being a sedative, irritant, or even a stimulant. The book would do whatever it needed to do depending on what you need, and the genre of book selected would be unique to each person. Today, bibliotherapy is expansive. From courses run in prison for inmates to reading groups for the elderly that suffer from degenerative diseases, bibliotherapy can take many forms and has such a great impact no matter what it looks like.
Modern bibliotherapy started at Cambridge University. Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud, college friends, bonded over their collections of books on their shelves. They ended up “prescribing” books to each other to self-medicate their life problems (career uncertainty, broken heart, etc.). When Elderkin and Berthoud found out that a fellow classmate was thinking about starting the “School of Life,” they wanted to join and incorporate a bibliotherapy clinic into the school because no one was doing that at the time.
Elderkin and Berthoud researched bibliotherapy and found that even ancient Greeks had a form of bibliotherapy–they referred to their library as a “healing place for the soul.” In the 1900s, famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used books during his sessions. Bibliotherapy was even used for World War II veterans with PTSD. More recently, bibliotherapy has been used in settings from hospitals to libraries by psychologists, social workers, doctors, and others.
The School of Life now has many bibliotherapists trained by Berthoud and Elderkin. The most common reasons people come to them are for “life-juncture transitions” such as feeling “stuck” in their life, feeling like they are in a rut, or experiencing a parenting transition.
Current neuroscience research supports bibliotherapy. Mirror neurons, neurons that help us copy and relate to others, are quite active while a person is reading. One study using fMRI scans showed that when someone reads about a certain experience, the brain regions that are stimulated suggest that they are mentally living out that experience also. Some other studies have shown that those who tend to read a lot of fiction seem to be more empathizing than those who don’t read a lot of fiction, specifically “literary fiction.” An author and professor of cognitive psychology, Keith Oatley, has studied the effects of fiction on the brain. In some of his studies, he has found that identifying and empathizing with fictional characters can possibly help improve social skills and can help us self-reflect.
There are many who are skeptical about the link between reading fiction and mental health, but reading can be a really great way to care for ourselves. Some studies have shown that reading actually puts our brains into a “pleasurable, trance-like state” that is very similar to meditation; it helps relax and calm the mind. Those who read on a regular basis have also been shown to have better sleep habits, lower levels of stress, higher self-esteem levels, and less depression compared to those who do not read.
While it can be overwhelming to decide which books to read, there are bibliotherapists who are willing to help, and many psychotherapists are incorporating these principles into their practice. If you need a quick way to unwind, try reading a book—it could give you purpose, relaxation, and increased self-awareness.