Reading. We do it for different reasons. Some of us read to learn, gain new knowledge, or discover information. Others read to escape reality, to be entertained, or to have a relaxing and quiet time. A few even read because they enjoy the feel and smell of books.
But here’s another reason to read a book you might not know of. Books can improve your health.
And that’s not even a new concept. It’s as old as the pyramids. The royal library of Ramses the Great, or Ramses II, Pharaoh of Egypt, bore an inscription over its portals which read, “The House of Healing for the Soul.”
The term “bibliotherapy” was first coined by Samuel Crothers, a Presbyterian minister who wrote for the Atlantic Monthly’s August 1916 edition. The term eventually made it into medical language later on.
Basically, bibliotherapy prescribes books to someone who reads them to gain some physical or mental health benefit. It may also be used to “[guide] in the solution of personal problems through directed reading,” according to the Association of Hospital and Institution Libraries.
Most book prescriptions are self-help books. But some bibliotherapists now also recommend fiction books.
What can bibliotherapy cure?
“As it turns out, reading the right book can help pretty much every non-serious malady that isn’t the common cold,” writes Kristian Wilson.
Here are some of the many different ways books can help you.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found kids who read children’s books were exposed to 50 percent more words than when they watch prime time TV or a conversation between college grads. This not only leads to higher scores on reading tests but also on general tests of intelligence.
Meanwhile, a separate study found strong early reading skills predict higher intelligence later in life.
A study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry found individuals with social anxiety disorder showed improvements after undergoing bibliotherapy.
A study compared face-to-face sessions vs. self-help books to help individuals suffering from depression. Researchers found self-help books were the more effective treatment.
Another study found people with depression had less chance of relapse when treated via bibliotherapy than when given medication.
A research on Alzheimer’s disease found elderly people who regularly read or play mentally challenging games are two and a half times less likely to have the disease.
In a study commissioned by Galaxy chocolate, researchers found reading silently for six minutes was 68 percent better at reducing stress levels than listening to music, drinking a cup of tea or coffee, going for a walk, or playing video games.
Aging inevitably brings with it decline in memory and brain function. But there’s a way to slow down the process. A research published in the journal Neurology found reading may help keep our minds sharper longer.
A Journal of Clinical Psychology article, which reviewed published research on bibliotherapy, found it “could successfull treat depression, mild alcohol abuse and anxiety disorders.”
A study found high-brow literature improves our ability to understand other people’s thoughts, emotions, and motivations more than pop fiction.
Experts on sleep often give the advice of reading a book before going to bed to help people sleep better. This should become a part of their bedtime routine to be effective.
Researchers from the Netherlands wanted to know if reading fiction could change empathy in the reader. They found readers of fiction were “emotionally transported” by the work more than those who read non-fiction. This increased fiction readers’ empathy.
“Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies,” according to a study that found similar results as the one above.
Books are better than e-readers at improving comprehension. There are several reasons for this. First, readers recall where in a book information appears. Second, they can interact with it: underline, highlight, dog ear, or write in the margins. Finally, a book sends signals that lead to better retention.
In one experiment, researchers found readers of fiction who strongly identified with a character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later. This is known as “experience-taking.” In this phenomenon, readers feel the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and internal responses of the character they identified to in a book.
Research on bibliotherapy effectiveness does not give us clear answers yet. But most people agree reading books offers a temporary relief from their sickness and more.
“Reading pushes the pain away into a place where it no longer seems important,” says Kate, who has suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years. Others report similar outcomes. You can read about their experiences here.
Experts say bibliotherapy works best on mild to moderate symptoms and would be most effective when coupled with conventional therapy or while waiting for it to begin.