Reading is good for your health!

Recently a client asked me for some book recommendations. This followed a conversation about how much they had enjoyed reading the novel ‘The Alchemist’ (Paul Coehlo) which I had read many years ago. We agreed that a good book can stir the emotions and provide lasting thoughts and insights on our own lives.

Recent research helps to explain how fiction can move us emotionally and affect our brain at a physical level. Research studies using EEG and fMRI brain scanning techniques show that we respond differently to narrative fiction than non-fiction due to the use of metaphor and imagery. Professor Philip Davies (University of Liverpool) has studied the effect of reading Shakespeare from a neuroscientific perspective. Brain imaging techniques helped to pinpoint the parts of Shakespeare’s writing that cause a gear shift (metaphorically) in the brain. The playwright’s use of ‘functional shifts’, the use of one part of speech to stand in for another such as when a noun is used in place of a verb – for example, ‘strong wines thick my thoughts’, produces a higher voltage in our brains.

The research shows that Shakespeare’s literary techniques activate not only the parts of the brain associated with routine language processing but also areas of the brain associated with emotion, empathy, creativity and search for meaning. His techniques, which were novel at the time, are now used by many other writers and have been found to activate the brain’s default mode network which is associated with autobiographical thinking and creativity. It seems that fictional stories push the brain beyond habit-based, literal thinking and stimulate the imagination. The evidence is growing that both reading (and listening to) fiction is a good way to enhance social skills and foster empathy which is great news for bookworms!

In solution focused hypnotherapy we use metaphor in various elements of the session which can help clients identify deeply-held personal narratives that can be negative and constraining and to reframe in more positive and constructive ways.

It took me a few days to mull over book recommendations for my client. It made me realise I have been reading more non-fiction lately and I now feel eager to get back to stories. Here is the list I sent my client of memorable books which have taken me through the full gamut of emotions over the years and found a lasting place in my thoughts:

A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
One Fine Day (David Nicholls)
The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach)
Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Number 9 Dream (David Mitchell)
Hamnett (Maggie O’Farrell)

*Source: Comer, C & Taggart, A (2021) Brain, mind and the narrative imagination. Bloomsbury