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Read a Novel: It’s Just What the Doctor Ordered

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Sarah Begley is a staff writer for TIME.

Reading fiction can improve your mental health

It’s well-established science that reading boosts vocabulary, sharpens reason and expands intellectual horizons. But the latest round of research on the benefits of literature focuses on how it improves not our IQ, but our EQ.

Book lovers profess a deep emotional bond with books, and scientists are increasingly looking to explain just what it is about fiction that improves our mental health. Three years ago, researchers at the New School for Social Research found a link between what psychologists call “theory of mind”–basically, the ability to know what another person is thinking or feeling–and reading a passage of literary fiction (distinguished from popular fiction). Participants who read passages from short stories were found to score better on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), an assessment that asks participants to look at photos of subjects’ eyes and identify what they’re feeling (for instance: arrogant, annoyed, upset or terrified). Headlines proclaimed that reading even a few pages of a short story could instantly improve your ability to empathize with your fellow man.

Turns out, that might be a bit of a stretch: in September, researchers tried to replicate that study and found no significant connection between reading a short passage and increasing empathy. But they did find a link between high theory of mind and a lifelong relationship with literature. Study participants who scored higher on the RMET were more likely to score high on the Author Recognition Test, which asks participants to check names on a list of 130 authors, half of which are bogus. Researchers subtract the number of fake authors identified by the participant from the number of real authors identified to gauge how familiar the person is with novelists, and therefore how well-read they probably are. So reading a few pages of a short story might not make you more empathetic, but being a devoted reader of literary fiction could.

Of course, correlation does not prove causation, and one of the lead authors, Maria Eugenia Panero of Boston College, says it’s “hard to know whether reading literary fiction increases theory of mind or if people who naturally have higher theory of mind are just more drawn to literary fiction.” It’s also possible that high empathy and a high interest in literary fiction feed off each other.

Being able to understand what other people are feeling is critical for building social relationships. So even though reading is a solitary activity, it could improve your social life. Another recent study, from the University of Münster, identified a separate social aspect of reading. “Heavy book users”–those who get through at least 18 books per year–flaunt their books in public or on living-room bookshelves as a way of communicating something about themselves in an effort to “shape identity and self-expression,” the authors wrote. This can take the form of differentiating oneself from others or relating to members of the same in-group.

Reading can also create an actual social bond between the reader and the characters–studies have found that fans of any fictional enterprise (not just books but TV series too) can feel real grief when a favorite character dies. The friendship is imaginary, but the emotional attachment is real–and it can have real-life implications. A 2012 study at the Ohio State University had registered undergraduates read different versions of a story in which the protagonist overcomes challenges in order to vote–like car troubles, bad weather and long lines. Those who read a version that led them to identify strongly with the character were more likely to vote in the real election a few days later–65% of them said they voted, compared with 29% who read a less relatable version of the story. In a small way, at least, reading affected their behavior.

At the School of Life in London, a cohort of bibliotherapists want to help people use fiction to change their lives on a more profound level. Bibliotherapy–more art than science–involves the prescription of novels “to cure life’s ailments,” says Ella Berthoud. Berthoud, an artist, and her friend Susan Elderkin, a novelist, met while studying at Cambridge and got into the habit of leaving books in brown paper bags outside each other’s dorm rooms to help them deal with the crisis of the week–romance problems, work stress and so on. They carried on the tradition for years and eventually decided it would be a useful service for others.

Berthoud, Elderkin and their associates are not trained as actual therapists, but their clients shell out £100 ($125) to spend 50 minutes with them, either in person or on a Skype or phone call. Besides a few devotees who come back again and again, most people use it as a one-time session–and frequently purchase a session for friends or relatives as a gift. Clients fill out a long questionnaire about what they like to read and what’s going on in their personal lives, then meet with the bibliotherapist to discuss in further detail. The bibliotherapist makes an “instant prescription” at the end of the session, then sends a list of six to eight books and the reasons for their recommendation a few days later. They say the feedback is 99% positive.

The prescriptions are primarily for fiction, and the advice contained therein is meant to be more emotional than technical. “Inhabiting a novel can be transformative in a way that using a self-help book isn’t,” says Berthoud. “There are certain books that have been really life-changing books for me,” says Elderkin, “and it’s generally a matter of luck whether you hit on the right book at the right time of your life, which can open a door and help you to see something in a new way, or just give you that next leap up into new maturity.”

Elderkin and Berthoud’s clients are frequently at a career crossroads: for this, they might prescribe Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, about siblings for whom a career change would be almost impossible. “It’s a lovely, lighthearted, this-guy-has-it-much-harder-than-you-and-he-still-manages-it type of kick up the backside,” Elderkin says. For women weighing whether to have children, they like The Accidental by Ali Smith. “It helps you think, Mmm, actually, this is making me think I’m really glad that I’m fancy-free and don’t have kids, or the opposite, as in, This is making me want to go for it while I can,” Berthoud says. For those struggling with a divorce, they suggest Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which features one woman’s series of marriages, some more successful than others. Those in so-so relationships are sometimes prescribed Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, about two women in unhappy marriages who take a villa together in Italy. It “actually is great for almost everybody as an encouragement to not look outside for the problem and the blame,” says Elderkin, “but to see if you can come up with a constructive new energy level.”

Of course, all these novels speak to far more than just a single topic–Their Eyes Were Watching God, for instance, is a 20th century masterpiece that has much to say about not just love but also religion, race, feminism and folklore, in addition to being a practically perfect work of art. But it is exactly because these books are not reducible to a single theme or lesson that readers can get so much out of them. A truly great novel, Berthoud says, “gets into your subconscious and actually can change your very psyche from within.”

The science behind reading for mental health is limited, but researchers like Panero are eager to continue exploring the benefits. “I think we all have some sort of intuitive sense that we get something from [fiction],” she says. “So in our field, we’re interested in saying, ‘Well, what is it that we’re getting?'”

Even the greatest novel cannot, by itself, cure clinical depression, erase posttraumatic stress or turn an egomaniac into a self-denying saint. But it might ease a midlife crisis or provide comfort in a time of grief. As more science comes in, Elderkin says, it’s natural for readers to find it “satisfying when people come up with ‘proof’ of something which they’ve always felt to be true.”□


This appears in the November 07, 2016 issue of TIME.
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