The Benefits of Reading: Happy Endings or Horror Stories?

Emily Wheater // Is reading good for us? For most of my life, the enjoyment of reading was incentive and justification enough for me to read. I read to cheer myself up, to escape, to learn, to engage. This belief in the inherent value of reading first came under attack when I went to university. At an all STEM college with no English Literature, History, Art or Philosophy students, many were prepared to voice the opinion that while non-fiction was good, because it imparted knowledge, reading fiction was pointless. But no one seemed to think that reading could be bad for you, and it didn’t occur to me either.

Recently though, as I read Sarah E. Worth’s In Defense of Reading, I found myself dwelling on the inadequacy of this assumption. Worth questions the notion that reading should be justified, and is sceptical of the quantitative measurements that science contributes [1]. It strikes me however, that when she refers to neuroscientific studies relating to reading, she is not actually tackling the scientific study of reading benefit per se. Instead she focuses on something narrower: how prior beliefs about whether a text is fiction or non-fiction influences engagement with and interpretation of those texts. This is interesting, certainly, but not the most pertinent evidence for her argument. In her conclusion, Worth concedes that the benefits of reading and literacy cannot easily be measured, but also challenges the notion that they should have to be: our enjoyment should be evidence and justification enough.

The argument that some human experiences are irreducible to measurement carries some weight. However, there is at least one case where evidencing the benefits of reading is both possible and vital. That is the therapeutic use of written material: bibliotherapy. More specifically, creative bibliotherapy, where texts that are not medical or self-help by nature are used therapeutically: think Jane Austen book club. Where there is therapeutic use there is an imperative to determine benefit and also to assume the possibility of harm. Harm may arise when reading (as in the pursuit of any other pleasure) takes a more destructive path. And indeed, when we look closer, we find both therapeutic and anti-therapeutic effect:

‘I think what helps me with reading and being depressed is that you get absorbed in something and it takes your mind off other things,’ writes Silas, a participant in L Brewster’s study of crime fiction bibliotherapy. ‘So certainly reading Cornwell, you can get so absorbed in that. So that’s been a real benefit, that’s enabled me to focus on that and then you tend not to think so much about why you’re depressed’ [2].

But then we also find this: ‘For a few days after being exposed to eating disorder ideas or stories I will restrict food or increase exercise,’ says an anonymous recovering anorexic in Emily Troscianko’s study of creative bibliotherapy in eating disorders. ‘Just being reminded of them as a coping mechanism makes me want to engage in them again’ [3].

Both cases used fiction: the first case demonstrates that fiction reading as escapism can act as a break from rumination; in the second, reading triggers the opposite, to perpetuate the cycle and even inspire destructive behaviours. Fiction is emotionally involving, and so it is perhaps not surprising that it could impact us positively or negatively.

But what about non-fiction? With the exception of memoir or biography, we do not normally ascribe this genre such emotional power. But that does not mean that non-fiction lacks the potential to cause emotional harm. In the first year of my PhD programme, I carried out a three-month project on circadian rhythms in depression. Going into the project, I expected that some personal learning might come out of it: I had sometimes experienced depression, and thought that gaining an understanding about mechanisms in the brain that contributed to mood would feel empowering. It never occurred to me that it might have the opposite effect.

But immersed in the scientific literature, describing symptoms, risk factors and possible causes, I began to trawl back through my life in an attempt to identify the causes of my own depression. One study demonstrated that patients with recurrent depression tended to have smaller hippocampal volumes. Upon reading the words ‘elevated glucocorticoid levels associated with chronic hyperactivity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis in MDD may induce brain atrophy via remodeling and downregulation of growth factors including brain-derived neurotrophic factor’, I experienced the sensation of an iron grip around my skull, a soreness in my temples [4]. They clearly told me, ‘Your brain is shrinking, shrunken, atrophying, right now’.

Panic set in. I tried to fix my shrunken and shrinking hippocampus by going for a run, the words ‘neurogenesis’ and ‘atrophy’ crashing like careering dodgems inside my head. Far from alleviating my rumination, my engagement in the scientific literature had merely armed it with a potent vocabulary that carried a veneer of data-driven objectivity.

Science may have the reputation of dispassion, but that does not make its words emotionally neutral. In the spring the project ended, and I started to regain some calm and peace of mind. But my beliefs about the benefits of reading, and even the ‘safety’ of knowledge itself, had shifted. I no longer conceived of their impact on a scale from neutral to good, but from bad to good.

I sympathise with frustration about the need to justify an enjoyment of reading. Unfortunately, enjoyment is not always a reliable measure of good. The use of literature for therapeutic purposes among the vulnerable renders this position untenable. It is not enough to rest on assumptions of harmlessness, catharsis and the pleasure that reading offers. When we consider the rise of trigger warnings in pedagogical settings, I also posit that in work into the efficacy and benefit of bibliotherapies it should be acknowledged that non-fiction, as well as fiction, carries a risk of emotional harm.

 

References:

[1] Sarah E. Worth, In Defense of Reading, 2017, Rowman and Littlefield International

[2] Brewster L, Murder by the book: using crime fiction as a bibliotherapeutic resource,

[3] Troscianko ET, Fiction-reading for good or ill: eating disorders, interpretation and the case for creative bibliotherapy research,

[4] Schmaal L et al, Subcortical brain alterations in major depressive disorder: findings from the ENIGMA Major Depressive Disorder working group, Molecular Psychiatry (2015); 21: 806–812

 

 

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