New research explores how reading affects eating disorders – for good and ill

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Emily Troscianko, University of Oxford

Why do you read? Maybe you read to relax after a long day, to learn about unfamiliar people or places, to make you laugh or to let you dream. Maybe you never really ask yourself why, but turn to books out of some vague instinct that they’re what you want or need.

The question of why humans invest such a lot of time and other resources in reading is an interesting one for researchers of both minds and texts, especially when it comes to fiction and poetry, where the answer doesn’t seem as obviously pragmatic as just learning useful facts. Whatever the answer is, it promises to tell us as much about human nature as it does about literature.

For decades now, researchers in cognitive literary studies have been suggesting reasons for why we read fiction. The dominant thinking is some variant on the idea that reading (especially reading narratives, often fictional) is pleasurable because it serves some evolutionarily adaptive purpose, in particular by giving us the chance to hone cognitive skills of one kind or another, free of real world risks. One strand of the general idea that narrative reading may increase our “fitness” is that it may quite literally help us be healthier.

Self-help books are an obvious place to start. There’s a growing body of research on “self-help bibliotherapy” (reading a self-help book, with or without some kind of formal guidance) which indicates that self-help books can sometimes be effective alternatives or supplements to other kinds of therapy.

But very little is known about whether readers respond in clinically relevant ways to poetry, fiction, or other narrative genres, such as memoir. The lack of evidence has not prevented a range of claims and theories from being proposed, and small-scale clinical uses of fiction and poetry by psychiatrists and psychotherapists seem to be fairly widespread.

So is the belief in art’s healing power just wishful thinking, or is there something to it?

Identification and insight

The focus of my work is eating disorders. To find out more about the effects of fiction-reading in this context, I set up a partnership with the leading UK eating disorder charity, Beat. We designed a detailed online questionnaire to ask respondents about the links they perceive between their reading habits and their mental health (with a focus on eating disorders). The survey attracted 885 responses (773 from people with personal experience of an eating disorder).

We found that 69% of those with personal experience reported seeking out both fiction and nonfiction to help with their eating disorder, and that 36% had found the fiction or nonfiction they tried helpful. We asked people to rate the helpfulness and harmfulness of different types of text in relation to their eating disorder, and 15% rated fiction about subjects other than eating disorders as more helpful than any other text type. At the same time, memoirs featuring an eating disorder were rated the most harmful text type, with fiction about eating disorders in second place. This suggests a complex set of effects.

But how does reading fiction actually affect health, positively or negatively? The dominant theoretical view holds that therapeutic effects arise out of a process involving identification (with the character or situation in the text) followed by insight (into the nature of one’s condition). This is perhaps accompanied by some kind of strong cathartic emotional response, followed by a problem-solving stage in which the insights are converted into intentions for personal change. This type of model usually requires that texts should portray situations as similar as possible to the reader’s own, and that they should provide happy but realistic endings.

There are many reasons to question this model. If reading about someone the same as yourself is meant to be therapeutic, what makes it different from, say, rereading your own diary entries? Does the concept of similarity become self-limiting at a certain point, and if so, at what point? And on what dimensions (nature of illness, age, sex, socioeconomic status) is similarity most relevant?

There are also reasons to wonder whether insight is necessarily the main driving force for therapeutic change. In the case of chronic eating disorders, extremely high levels of insight are often coupled with a paralysed inability to act on that insight. So at least among long term sufferers, there may be a more important role for reading experiences that increase motivation or self belief for recovery, rather than providing yet more confirmation of the awfulness of the illness.

Help and harm

The survey findings also direct our attention forcefully to the power of reading to do harm as well as good: one 18-year-old female respondent in recovery from multiple eating disorders described harmful reading matter as “reminding me of why I wanted to starve myself and reinforcing my irrational thoughts”. The testimony on the effects of fiction about eating disorders was overwhelmingly negative; 18 respondents also spontaneously mentioned deliberately “self-triggering”, or choosing to read books they knew would exacerbate their disorder.

Many respondents reported that their eating disorder encourages them to read in such a highly selective way that anything and everything can end up supporting the disordered mindset. Self-perpetuating feedback loops also seem to play a powerful role. If you’re feeling trapped by some aspect of an eating disorder (like low self-esteem), you might be more likely to read a certain type of text, or to read in a particular way (like zooming in on every association of thinness with something positive). This then makes you feel worse (maybe feeling instantly fatter or more determined to lose weight), which in turn encourages more unhealthy reading patterns. These vicious circles can be hard to break.

But fiction-reading seems to be one of the things that can break them. Fiction about something entirely unrelated to disordered eating can be stabilising and therapeutic in numerous ways. This can be pragmatic and embodied (allowing regular eating to happen, for example) or broadly existential: exploring alternative worlds, or reminding yourself that your life really could be different. A 27-year-old male in recovery from anorexia described how:

After reading sci-fi my mood is raised and I tend to feel more at peace with the universe, cognitively and imaginatively stimulated and inspired.

The ConversationSo, next time you pick up a book, reflect for a while on your reasons for doing so. And think about whether, when you’re tired or stressed out or indeed more seriously unwell, you find forms of solace, healing, or inspiration in the apparently simple black marks on a white background.

Emily Troscianko, Knowledge Exchange Fellow at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Article: Reading Habits of Pastors

The link below is to an article concerning research conducted by the Barna Group into the reading habits of pastors.

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Article: The Real William Shakespeare?

The link below is to an article that reports on new research that sheds new light on the life of William Shakespeare. 

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From My Armchair: 4 August 2012

I am into my last days of annual leave, so it is doubtful I’ll be able to read anywhere near as much as I have this last week. I’ll probably have the Kindle out at lunch for a bit, so I’ll still be getting some reading in even while I’m at work. The Kindle has certainly made it a lot easier to have good reading material available no matter where I am. Loving the Kindle.


Social Networks, Web Applications & Other Tools

Not a lot has happened with the social networks in the book/reading niche over this last week, except that I have been updating Goodreads on a regular basis as to what I am reading, progress and cataloguing the books as I go.

I did do a quick addition to Quotista, which has a lot of potential but doesn’t appear to be being developed any further, which is quite disappointing. It could really be something good if it was improved from time to time. It looks so good. So, I have also been using a personal blog for filing quotes. This will be able to be searched and catalogued as I go and will make a very good tool down the track, curating my reading over the years, while still being able to use my books as valuable tools for further research and study. I think it works OK.


Currently Reading:

Currently, I am reading two books – well one actually, but about to start another. These are listed below:

Killing Calvinism– Killing Calvinism: How to Destroy a Perfectly Good Theology from the Inside, by Greg Dutcher

I have started reading this twice – it is an excellent read and I wanted to absorb what I had read, so I thought why not start again. Highly recommend this one.

See also:


– Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet

I haven’t really started this book as I finish this post, but it will be one I’ll be starting some time today.


Finished Reading:

Treasure IslandI have managed to get a couple of books read this week (and even reviewed).

– One of these book was ‘Treasure Island,’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read this on the Kindle and it was a very quick read, finishing it in two days. My book review is linked to below.

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The Bourne Identity– I also managed to complete ‘The Bourne Identity,’ by Robert Ludlum. This is the first of 10 books in the Jason Bourne series.

I haven’t yet completed a book review on this one, it will be coming soon.


The Hunger Games– I both purchased and read the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy, ‘The Hunger Games,’ by Suzzane Collins this week.

I haven’t yet completed a book review on this one either, but it will come this week sometime hopefully.


Purchased & Added to Library:

I again grabbed a heap of free ebooks from Amazon. These are all of the books I’ve posted on my Blog ‘The Book Stand,’ so all posted there I also downloaded for myself. I’ll certainly have more books than I can ever read that’s for sure, but certainly never wanting for choice. No harm in grabbing them while there free and in digital format – if I don’t read them all, what does it matter? At least I’ll have them if I want to read them.

Among the books I actually purchased this week:

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet


Article: Building a Library with Diigo

The link below is to an article, which though old, will still be a useful introduction to the bookmarking service Diigo. The service is so much more than a bookmarking service though, being a very useful service for research and online library building.

Diigo V5: Collect and Highlight, Then Remember! from diigobuzz on Vimeo.

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Article: An Argument for Traditional Books

The link below is to an article about the need for traditional books, especially in the area of theology and I guess other areas of research also would be relevant. The interest in this article may well be the comments made following it.

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