Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.
- Ben Okri -
In ancient Egypt, libraries were known as psyches iatreion, "sanatoriums of the soul." During the Renaissance, the poetry of the Psalms was thought to "banish vexations of body and soul. Now, science is starting to prove what readers and writers have long known: Words can help us repair and revitalize our bodies as well as our minds. And as a result, bibliotherapy -- reading specific texts in response to particular situations or conditions -- is becoming more and more popular among psychologists, physicians, librarians and teachers.
Brain imaging studies provide a glimpse of what happens when we get lost in a book. Using scanning technology, a team of scientists led by Nicole K. Speer at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory at the University of Washington in St. Louis, Missouri, found that some of the brain regions active during reading a story “mirror those involved when people perform, imagine or observe similar real-world activities.” When reading, our brains simulate what happens in the story, using the same circuits we’d use if the same things happened to us. On a neurological level, we become part of the action.
The brain straddles fact and fiction when we read, which is why psychotherapists believe books are so powerful and why they can act like a key that opens the door to a person’s inner world. Simulating the feelings and experiences of literary figures can allows readers to perceive and express their own emotions. That’s why it’s crucial to pick the reading material that will connect us to our 'higher selves' and inspire us to be the best we can be.