Background field: My undergraduate degree was in French and German (heavy on the literature), after which I did a Masters and a DPhil (PhD) in German literature. During my doctorate I started doing empirical work on readers’ responses to literature, and that led me gradually towards questions about specifically health-related responses.
Current research and other work: I now balance cog-lit/medical-humanities research around ‘bibliotherapy’ with a freelance portfolio including academic support, recovery coaching, and writing.
Methods: So far my bibliotherapy research (in collaboration with the charity Beat) has involved survey-based data-gathering to map out the territory, starting with the links people perceive between their reading habits and their mental health, and focusing on eating disorders.
Findings: For respondents with personal experience of an eating disorder (n = 773) stark difference emerged between the overall unhelpfulness (on the dimensions of mood, self-esteem, feelings about one’s body, and diet and exercise habits) of fiction about eating disorders (e.g. where the protagonist has one) versus the overall neutral or positively helpful effects reported about people’s preferred type of other fiction. This distinction broadly held true also for the (relatively much smaller) sample of respondents without personal experience of an eating disorder (n = 112). The strongest positive effect for non-eating disorder fiction was on the mood dimension.
What was surprising? I didn’t expect nearly such a sharp divergence between the two genres: my thought was that reading fiction or memoirs about eating disorders probably often has benefits as well as dangers, but the overwhelming perception reported here was negative, with many reports of being sucked into comparing oneself competitively with the ill characters and seeking to emulate them, or just getting more deeply immersed in the eating-disorder mindset and filtering out anything that doesn’t support it.
Weaknesses: These are only self-report data, reflecting on reading experiences often fairly long past. People may have recall biases, and don’t have full insight into the causal paths by which they grew ill or began to recover. Experimental work will be needed to establish cause and effect.
What’s next? That experimental work! Ideally this will involve a combination of short-term ‘mechanisms’ studies (what’s going on?) and longer-term ‘efficacy’ studies (is what happens therapeutically relevant?). I’m currently beginning a collaboration with a PhD student in Spain, Rocío Riestra-Camacho, who has designed an empirical study to investigate the effects for people with anorexia of reading young-adult sports fiction. Her work should constitute a valuable next step.
Making the case: People spend a lot of time reading. People believe that what they read has strong effects, both negative and positive, on their mental health. People are probably not wrong. We know almost nothing about how the health-related effects of engaging with complex textual material actually play out, and given that most mental illnesses are still not at all well understood, let alone effectively treated, we really ought to.
Other topics we cover:
- The weirdness of the Kafkaesque; cognitive realism; mental imagery; and recognition and alienation
- The difficulties and joys of doing experiments as a humanities scholar
- The constraints and opportunities of having personal motivators for research
- Academic failure
- Making the transition from an academic to a portfolio career
- What’s the future of the humanities?
Find out more:
- You can find a research overview and links to my key articles on bibliotherapy on my other website, hungerartist.org, here.
- My Psychology Today blog, A Hunger Artist, is here. Or you can see a thematically arranged list of all my posts here.
- The full list of my academic publications is here, and the paper I mention on Kafka’s story ‘A Hunger Artist’ is here.
- You can find out more on overcoming a sense of academic failure, including a workbook and podcast series, here. And a workbook I created on portfolio careers is available on the same page (because whatever exciting places you end up, leaving academia often starts off feeling like failure).