The connection between literature, the mind, and medicine is examined in a series of studies that demonstrate the therapeutic effects of reading. By studying how different brain areas respond to literature, researchers utilize innovative approaches to treating neurological conditions.

Curling up with your favorite novel on a slow Sunday morning may be therapeutic for you and beneficial for your brain. In fact, new studies suggest that reading may even help patients recover from neurological disorders.

In a February 2015 study published in PLOS ONE, Roel Willems and Annabel Nijhof of Radboud University’s Donders Institute were among the first to use an fMRI scanner to measure how people process stories in literature. According to the study, each person listens to and processes stories in a unique way, choosing to focus on particular elements that may reflect their personality as well as previous experiences.

Participants in the study listened to audiobook chapters of “Island Guests” by Vonne van der Meer and “Thaw” by Rascha Peper. According to Willems, researchers found “strong individual preferences” among participants. While some chose to focus on understanding the emotions and motivations of the protagonist, others focused on visualizing the protagonist’s actions. In patients who focused on intent, emotions, or empathy, researchers found increased activity in the supramarginal gyrus of the brain, which is involved in processing the postures and gestures of other people. In patients who formed visualized actions, or formed a mental image, Willem and Annabel found increased activity in the primary visual cortex, which helps us see and process the environment around us.

The fRMI study shows that humans are individually hardwired to prefer either empathy or visualization of action when listening to others’ stories. More recent studies show that the occurrence of increased activity in the brain may extend to reading poetry as well. As detailed in a February 2017 article published in Frontiers in Psychology, Professor Guillaume Thierry spearheaded an experiment that demonstrated people’s natural tendency to appreciate poetry. Surprisingly, researchers found that the human brain subconsciously appreciated poetry even when lacking information about the literary meaning behind a piece.

In this study, Thierry and his colleagues showed native Welsh test subjects traditional Welsh poetry and other poetry that violated the forms of Welsh poetry. The patients were then asked to rate each individual sentence as “good” or “bad” depending on whether or not they believed the sentence was aesthetically pleasing to the ear. Notably, patients showed greater levels of appreciation for poetry that conformed to the metric, rhyme, and alliteration that characterizes traditional Welsh poetry. This was particularly interesting in the case of patients who were not familiar with the structure of Welsh poetry and could not explicitly differentiate between traditional and nontraditional Welsh poetry. Thierry’s study suggests that our brain subconsciously processes literary information and innately appreciates poetry.

Studies like these show that reading can not only instill in us a sense of peace but can also induce greater mental stimulation in areas associated with empathy, visualization, and emotions. These beneficial effects could potentially help patients recovering from a variety of neurological conditions such as strokes, depression, and concussions. Though traditional treatments may address injuries with medications and physical therapy, reading may also serve as a form of therapy. By stimulating areas like the supramarginal gyrus, reading literature could help restore the function of brain areas damaged as a result of accidents or neurological disorders. Reading poetry, on the other hand, could help patients suffering from depression recover by stimulating areas of the brain associated with appreciation. Soon, reading could revolutionize the way doctors treat neurological conditions and could become a more standard part of the recovery process.

Posted by Cathy Nie

Cathy is a freshman studying Neuroscience and Writing Seminars. As a member of HMR’s Medical Humanities team, she is interested in exploring the intersection of history, literature, and medicine, as well as clinical applications. She is especially passionate about the application of the humanities to neurological disorder recovery. Outside of HMR, Cathy is currently involved with Charm City Science League, Zeniada, and the JHU News-Letter. In her free time, she loves glowstringing, reading, and playing guitar.

One Comment

  1. w-w-w-WOAHH!!!!


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