Novels and neurons: the very real science of bibliotherapy and the fascinating ways that reading can change our brains for the better

We all know instinctively that reading can make us feel good. But what about the science? Journalist Ali Roff Farrar examines the scientific benefits of settling down with a good book, and our bestselling authors share their own experiences of bibliotherapy.

10/05/2021
16 minutes to read

Did you know that reading has been shown to decrease your blood pressure? Or that when you read about a character jumping, the neurons that are associated with the physical action of jumping are also activated in your brain?

As avid readers, we’ve long supported the use of bibliotherapy in all its forms, and never have we relied on the comfort reading provides more than in the last twelve months.

But the mental health benefits of reading reach far beyond the obvious escapism and advantages of viewing challenging topics from different perspectives; from improved memory to reduced stress to enhanced neural activity. Here, journalist Ali Roff Farrar finds out more about the fascinating effects that reading can have on our brains, with the help of expert research and heartfelt testimonies from some of our best-selling authors.

'As an anxious person, I often find it difficult to focus on one thing,' shares Vanessa Jones, author of Dance Like No One's Watching. 'My brain jumps from worry to worry, and struggles to switch off – I’ve tried practising mindfulness and meditation, but they don’t work for me. During the last lockdown, when my anxiety was high, a friend suggested I tried re-reading books I used to enjoy. While the thought of starting a new book felt somehow daunting, reading something familiar appealed, so I gave it a go. And it worked: I found that I was able to lose myself completely. Absorbing myself in a story I already knew and loved was as good as a mental rest, and now, if I feel anxiety creeping in, I’ll reach for a well-thumbed novel!'

Literature has the power to transport us away from the to-do lists and troubles of life and soothe us with a comforting balm of captivating characters and scintillating storytelling. But how exactly does reading aid our mental health? Here we outline seven of the top benefits.


Reading reduces stress

Feeling stressed? Reading has been found to significantly help ease your stress levels, lowering heart rate and decreasing blood pressure, easing muscle tension and creating a calmer state of mind. ‘During difficult times in my life, I've found fiction to be the friend who provides comfort but asks nothing in return,’ shares author Fiona Cummins

‘I often turn to old favourites, those warm blanket reads of my childhood – 'Anne of Green Gables' or 'When Marnie Was There' – and these books provide a sort of emotional nourishment, a reassuring familiarity that lights the darkness.’
Fiona Cummins

But if you’re so busy you think you don’t have time to reap the benefits of a good book, don’t worry – a study at the University of Sussex found that reading for just 6 minutes has the power to reduce stress levels by a huge 68%.(1)

‘Reading has been essential to my mental health since long before I knew what mental health was or that I need to look after it' says Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of Dear Reader. 'I’ve pondered over the years about why that is and have a few theories. At the most basic level it offers an escape from myself. If I am brooding and my mind is going around in circles then I can get off my own internal merry-go-round for a couple of hours by getting in the bath with an old favourite.  

Reading also offers respite from life. If the real world is too painful or confusing then I can hide in a book for a while until I feel strong enough to re-engage. Being able to find something funny often lets a chink of light into a dark day. I have certain books that are mood shifters and cheerer-uppers and always do the trick. Reading makes me feel less alone. I am reassured to know that everything I feel has been felt before, and to look for lessons from my fellow travellers. I find that curiosity is a wonderful ally, and if I can encourage myself to feel curious then I can shift the gloom.' 

And Cathy isn't alone in turning to her bookshelves in times of need.

‘I’ve only experienced second-hand the nightmare of poor mental health, the thoughts rattling around in your head, the stress and anxiety that eats away at the days and the nights. Distraction is sometimes all you can hope for, and what is more distracting than a brilliant, heart-stopping story.’
Ann Cleeves
‘Reading allows your brain to both focus and freely wander. That is what the human brain does best. So carve out time to do it. It can be a few minutes here or there, or longer. A book can fit any need for the most part. It can take us away or take us right to the moment. But the important thing is to be in the game. Open a book. Turn the page. Dive in. Live. ’
David Baldacci


Reading preserves memory

Want to maintain a sharp mind into your mature years? Keeping up your favourite childhood pastime could be key to preserving memory later in life. Practising ‘mentally stimulating activities’ in early, middle and later life (a great example being reading as an activity many of us participate in from childhood to middle age and into old age), has been found to aid a slower rate of decline in memory.(2) 

‘There is huge benefit to learning new things. Knowledge is power and books are full of it.’
Cathy Rentzenbrink


Reading has the power to transform our brains

‘While books can entertain, they can make us laugh and cry, they can take us out of ourselves and to faraway lands, what they ultimately do is to make us feel seen. And it’s being seen that can change a person’s life in more ways than you can ever imagine.’
Alexandra Potter

Many of us have one beloved book that we feel changed us on an emotional level, and it turns out stories have the power to transform our brains on a structural level too. 

Researchers asked participants to read a novel, and then measured brain activity for five days afterwards. They found heightened connectivity across these five days in not only the language centre of the brain (which is significant as the participants had already finished reading the book), but also the primary sensory motor region of the brain, where neurons are associated with sensations in the body. For example, even thinking about jumping can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of jumping. Researchers believe this is linked to our mental connection to living the story we are reading through the actions of the characters, so we aren’t just experiencing the emotional side of the character's perspective by being in their shoes, we’re also actually experiencing physically living in their shoes neurologically.(3)


Reading can help you be a better person 

Here’s a novel look at being the ‘best version of yourself.’ Not only do our brains change on a structural level when we process stories, research has also found that when we read, we feel the emotions, connect to the thoughts and align with the beliefs of characters as if they are our own thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Researchers call this ‘experience-taking.’ You may have experienced this yourself, but what does it mean? Well, researchers found that when we strongly identify with a character in this way, it can influence us to take on the favourable behavioural qualities that they have.

‘Reading a novel, we see the world from the point of view of someone different from us, perhaps another nationality or a different gender. This calls on us to use our imaginations. The habit of imagining what life is like for other people carries over from literature into everyday life, and we become more understanding, more tolerant people.’
Ken Follett

In one scientific experiment, readers who had this ‘experience-taking’ process reading about a character of a different race or sexual orientation were less likely to stereotype. Another study found that having read about a protagonist who overcame obstacles and decided to vote, people were more likely to stand up for what they believed in and make the effort to vote themselves.(4) 

Cathy Rentzenbrink adds: 

‘I realized long ago that to stay sane I must retain a faith in humanity. Books help me to do that. They are the best that humanity has to offer of itself. When my soul is weary and I am spiralling downwards and flirting with futility, then I gaze at my bookshelves and marvel again at the multitudes of worlds contained in their pages. And then I reach out and pull something from the shelf. And it’s as simple as that. I’m still here. I’m committed to life and my fellow humans. I’m reading a book. Reading comforts me, but also takes me out of myself and encourages me to care about other things. It gently suggests that there is more out there to discover and that I can give my own preoccupations the slip by joyously embarking on literary exploration.’
Cathy Rentzenbrink


Reading makes us kinder

Could reading make us kinder? A study in 2017 compared readers to TV watchers and found that people who preferred to read had greater awareness and empathy for other people's feelings, while people who preferred watching television were found to come across as less friendly and less understanding of other people’s views. The researchers’ hypothesis on the results is that reading a book requires more imagination and the requirement to fill in the blanks and try to understand what the character is going through.(5)

‘I think the beauty of books, especially fiction, is that they open a thousand windows into a thousand other people’s minds, and you get to see all the fears, neurosis, insecurities and dark spots that people in the 'real' world go through great pains to conceal from others,’ shares Brian Naslund, author of the Dragons of Terra series. 

‘For me, simply knowing that I’m not alone with my issues is a great comfort.’
Brian Naslund


Reading improves our relationships

To take this research a step further, reading can enhance your empathetic skills and thus your relationships. Researchers found that reading literary fiction (over popular fiction and non-fiction) enhances our Theory of Mind:  the complex social skill of ‘mind-reading’ to understand others’ mental states. Otherwise known as cognitive empathy, this is a skill which is essential for social relationships and for healthy, functional societies.(6) 

‘In my novel, Confessions of a Forty-Something F**K Up, I tell the story of fortysomething NeIl Stevens, who feels like a failure because she hasn’t ticked all the boxes and reached all the goals that society expects. While it’s fictional, those feelings are real for many people. Yet they’re so often not talked about,’ explains Alexandra Potter. ‘I remember thinking if just one person reads my book and relates, and in doing so realises they’re not alone, then it will have made a difference to their lives. Just like the books I’ve read have done to mine.  And that’s the life-changing power of a book. The ability to connect with people wherever they live around the world.’

‘Experiences and emotions that seem personal, subjective and utterly unique turn out to be universal if you are a reader. Fiction says, "Welcome to the human condition, no one comes out of this alive anyway, so enjoy the ride as best you can," and that sort of inoculation may not work for Covid, but it’s great for your mental health.’
T. L. Huchu


Reading can help empower children to deal with social issues

Research has found that books have the ability to empower children to better deal with difficulties(7). ‘Growing up, it was through books that I realised I wasn’t the only person in the world who felt this way. Feelings that I could never explain were articulated so wonderfully. It made me realise I wasn’t alone. And that’s a very powerful thing to realise,’ describes Alexandra Potter.

Books with characters who come up against challenges similar to those of the children reading them, or books which offer problem-solving activities, ideas and examples in their stories were found to help improve communication and attitude and reduce aggression in children with social disorders or difficulties.

Amy Wilson, author of Lightning Falls shares:

‘My home has not always been a place of safety. Sometimes home is only truly found when we can make our own; sometimes even then it can be assailed. When my childhood home was frightening, I found a place of safety in books. They gave me family, and laughter and hope – they gave me a home, while I waited to build my own. I am grateful beyond all words that I have the home I dreamed of now, but sometimes, though the dangers are long past, I am still frightened – I still need to find home in books. In Katya Balen's novel 'October, October', the whole notion of home is explored, and liberated. October’s voice found a home in me, and gave me a home, when I was feeling vulnerable in mine. That’s why books are critical, for the children we are and the children we were. That’s why they’re magic.’


And finally… if literature isn’t your thing, non-fiction books can provide practical help when we need it

‘After I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at the age of twenty I was recommended to read mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books,’ says Jonny Benjamin, author of the brilliant The Stranger on the Bridge. ‘I put off doing so for years, having convinced myself that mindfulness simply wasn’t for me. Thankfully, in my mid-20s I decided to give it a try. Both Mindfulness For Beginners and Wherever You Go, There You Are had a profound impact on me. There was a sense of freedom in Kabat-Zinn’s words from all the suffering I had encountered. Finally, something began to shift, and I no longer felt stuck. Both of these books helped to change my perspective on mental health, as well as life itself.’

Shahroo Izadi, author of The Kindness Method also shared that the pages of a non-fiction book gave her the words she needed to communicate her own experiences: 'Pia Mellody's Facing Codependence was a real eye-opener for me. It explained so many themes that I was seeing play out in my own life but didn’t have the vocabulary for. I remember reading it cover to cover in the first sitting and realising both that I wasn’t alone and that there were practical steps I could take to change my patterns.'

Lucy Holland, author of Sistersong, adds: 'I never expected to find answers to my personal issues in a book of essays, but Alan Garner's The Voice That Thunders absolutely transformed my understanding of emotional triggers and helped me come to terms with events I'd never consciously understood before. Garner talks candidly about his own mental health and that is so important when it still carries a stigma for many people. I think in some cases books can be better than doctors when it comes to learning about ourselves; they give us a gentle, accessible and contemplative space that can't be replicated elsewhere.'



Sources:

(1) 2009 study by the University of Sussex lead by Dr David Lewis

(2) R. S. Wilson, P. A. Boyle, L. Yu, L. L. Barnes, J. A. Schneider, D. A. Bennett. Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden and cognitive ageing. Neurology, 2013

(3) Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, Brandon E. Pye. Short- and long-term effects of a novel on connectivity in the brain. Brain Connectivity, 2013

(4) Geoff F. Kaufman, Lisa K. Libby. Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2012

(5) Kingston University. 'Reading may make us kinder, student's research into fiction habits and personality types reveals.' ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 May 2017

(6) David Comer Kidd And Emanuele Castano. Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, October 2013

(7)University of Cincinnati. 'How books can have a positive impact on a child's social struggles.' ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 12 August 2013