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How Bibliotherapy Works

Information that comes to us in story form rewires our brains

You’ve heard me say before that I believe my healing from the psychological and physical maladies that sidelined me after my Louisiana return could only have come from reading Dante, as opposed to a book of non-fiction. As I told a friend in e-mail last night, I didn’t learn much more from Dante than I already knew in terms of moral behavior, theology, and philosophy. It was the way I learned it in Dante that made the difference. Elizabeth Svoboda explores why stories can have that effect on people. Excerpt:

The stories we tell ourselves are integral to our wellbeing, too. Depressed people often cling to long-established internal narratives with refrains like ‘I’m not good enough to achieve much,’ or ‘My mother dashes all my most important dreams.’ Counsellors who practice psychodynamic therapy help clients discard these stagnant inner monologues and substitute fresh ones. In a 2005 case study, Rutgers University psychologist Karen Riggs Skean describes one of her patients, a graduate student in his late twenties called CG who was the child of abusive, neglectful parents. CG believed close relationships with others could only hurt him. Living out this narrative had made him lonely, withdrawn, and convinced others were out to get him. At the beginning of treatment, he often told Skean, ‘I’m not sure how helpful today’s session has been.’ But little by little, CG began to let Skean in, telling her stories from his difficult past. In return, Skean helped him see how his early struggles had led him to tell himself certain stories – the world was hostile and cold, people would always reject him – that were not necessarily true.

One day, CG reported that he had actually asked a woman on a date and that he’d enjoyed himself the whole time. When Skean expressed happiness, she recalls, CG ‘began to cry and said that he just realised there had never been anyone in his life who gave him a feeling that he should be happy, should do things that brought him pleasure’. It was a watershed moment, a glimpse at the evolution of CG’s internal narrative. No longer the abused, forgotten child who saw so many forces arrayed against him, he was beginning to see himself as capable, valuable, and worthy of the good things in life. After his therapy concluded, CG went on to thrive and to take high-ranking positions in his academic field.

This is like what happened to me. The Commedia uncovered a harmful story, or stories, deeply embedded within me, and displaced them. More:

When story is at its best – as yarn-spinners like Hale can testify – its effect is expansive rather than nakedly persuasive. Narratives that tell us point-blank who we should be, how we should behave, are better described as dictates or propaganda. The most enduring stories, by contrast, broaden our mental and moral outlook without demanding that we hew to a certain standard. Whether they describe a young nurse risking her life to smuggle children out of the Warsaw Ghetto, a meek older woman who shows grit and selflessness after a surprising tragedy (Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs), or a hotel manager who shelters refugees marked out for death (Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda), they present us with an arresting alternative to the way we see the world.

What’s so great in this regard about the Commedia is that the poem is unquestionably constructed around a particular vision of the Good, but it is not didactic. As I experienced it, I would see a character behaving a certain way, or consider a character’s account of his or her behavior, and would think about how the moral principle on display in the episode related to my own way of thinking and moving in the world. Through this method of indirection, Dante effectively instructed me.

Look at this part:

‘The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life; a way of thinking under stress,’ wrote William Harris, the late classics professor emeritus at Middlebury College, Vermont. ‘They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again.’

Boy, is this ever true about Dante. He doesn’t tell you what to think about life as much as he shows you how to think about life. I find myself returning to him even now. Ironically, the frantic work schedule I lived under in writing this book in the late fall and early winter put so much stress on my immune system that after Christmas, a particular bit of bad news that I normally could have absorbed tipped me back into mono — this, after a full year of health. It’s miserable, but I’m not panicked by it, because I know now how to deal with it. My experience with Dante gave me those tools.

I won’t quote more from the Svoboda piece, from Aeon magazine, which is excellent, but I will say this: she writes about how neuroscience research indicates that stories have their particular impact (over nonfictional information that our brains receive) because of how the brain receives information embedded in a story. Briefly put, a story activates parts of your brain that would have been activated had you been going through the events of the story yourself. In other words, the truths (or lies) embedded in a story become incarnate within us because they are embedded in a story. This is not a metaphysical proposition, but a biological one.

Choose well your stories.



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