By 2020 it is estimated the Self-Help industry will be worth $13.2 million dollars. In 2019 Brits bought 3,000,000 self-help books, supposedly driven by political angst and the increased pressures of modern life and work. Unfortunately, evidence does not show these tomes made much difference to the physical or mental health of readers, who need steely diligence to apply the information gained from them. Psychologists tell us such books only marginally help, and only if we determinedly plan, act, set goals and rewards and share our new knowledge to engender encouragement in our quest to change our bad habits. There may be a simpler answer for alleviating perceived emotional or mental distress: fiction.
As a writer, I strive to write with originality while attempting to portray characters facing adversity. My aim, in common probably with most writers, is to entertain, inform or perhaps influence a reader. A recent book, however, shows just how much a brain can be changed, and an individual’s mental health boosted, by reading a work of fiction. This is especially true of classic works such as those by Dickens and other great writers, but also applies to modern literature involving complex and unpredictable storylines.
In Reading for Life (Oxford University Press), Professor Philip Davis presents recent research into the processes of reading. He studied its effect on individuals using various methods such as brain-imaging and transcript analysis of reading group sessions. Researchers concluded that ‘challenging language’ with unusual words and phrases can send ‘rocket boosters’ to the brain and improve mental health, as reading promotes self-reflection and shift brains into higher gear. Surprisingly, self-help books do not ‘ignite’ the brain like good fiction which ‘frees emotions and the imagination.’ The former may impart information, but sadly there is no hard research evidence that they improve depression or reduce chronic pain.
At the Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at Liverpool University, Davis monitored patients hooked up to brain scanners while reading texts like Dickens novels or T.S Eliot’s poetry. Astonishingly, they discovered that reading is even capable of re-engaging patients with moderate dementia, one of whom spoke for the first time in months.
A charity called The Reader collaborated in the research and now runs reading groups in community centres, libraries, care homes. hospitals, prisons and workplaces. They even have a definition of ‘great’ literature as ‘that which has the power to touch diverse people and illuminate what connects us,’ while ‘helping with inner life, mental health’ and making participants say, ‘I never knew anyone but me felt that!’
The book features interviews with a wide range of readers, from professionals to some severely under-privileged and inexperienced, offering detailed readings of the texts alongside in-depth understanding of the people reading them. There are cases where patients diagnosed as benefiting, testify to the improvements in their own mental life from reading and reading groups.
As a retired medic, I would hesitate to say this research proves reading can be a cure for mental illness, but as one Welsh NHS Medical Director Dr David Fearley states, this may be ‘the most significant development in mental healthcare in the past 10 years.’
There can be few who have not browsed amongst the plethora of self-help paperbacks in airport bookshops: the caustic four-letter-word polemic, the ghosted celebrity ‘How I Survived X,’ the misery memoirs of the media Messiah. But now there is scientific evidence you should instead move over to Fiction and seek a novel with unexpected twists and complex language. More fun anyway!
Reading for Life, Philip Davis, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 9780198815983 (NB others of same title)
Philip Davis is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool and author of works on Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, George Eliot, Bernard Malamud, and on the uses of memory from Wordsworth to Lawrence. He has written various books on literary reading and edits OUP’s series The Literary Agenda on the role of literature in the world of the twenty-first century.