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  • Sydney Horton, LPC

The Books on Your Therapist’s Shelves

The origins of literacy, writing and reading, can be traced back to Southern Mesopotamia around 3,000 BCE. Ancient Sumerians started written communication on clay tablets through cuneiform script, known as the original writing system. Today, humans are engaging in multi-purpose reading across countries and cultures. This long-lasting engagement and overlap with neurological research has led to important insights into how reading both impacts the developing brain, as well as the neurological benefits to this form of stimulation. In addition, the intersection of psychotherapy and reading can be seen through the practice of bibliotherapy, as this supports ranging areas of growth within therapeutic work from increasing self-awareness to practicing intentional self-care.


Reading and Brain Development


In the developing brain we see that reading supports the immediate short-term and long-term sustained development of cognitive performance, through increasing vocabulary and strengthening cognitions. Researchers have found that reading, at its most tangible level, can positively impact standardized testing scores, in correlation with higher education admissions and opening doors to diverse job opportunities. Consistent engagement in reading promotes sustained focus and a deeper ability to understanding and conceptualizing new and creative ideas. Whether you are reading fiction or non-fiction, it fosters your ability to effectively and creatively problem solve, recall important details, and visualize scenarios supportive of decision making. Surprisingly, almost half of American individuals will not engage in reading beyond their highest level of education.


What does science tell us about reading and the brain?


The information above is supported by neurological research conducted by the collection of qualitative and empirical data. Research informs us that reading is a highly stimulating task for the brain across a variety of neural regions. Reading is a highly stimulating, yet grounding task to engage in, as it stimulates both left and right brain hemispheres. Through MRI scans we can see that as the suspense builds in storylines, whether novel or factual, more areas of the brain can be seen lighting up with activity. One responding region being the somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for how our brains respond to movement and pain. Reading stimulates areas within the left hemisphere that control, language, speech, thinking and mood. The “theory of the mind” supports that this process increases an adults ability to build, navigate and maintain interpersonal relationships and basic day-to-day social interactions. When reading fictional literacy, this is supportive of individuals being more capable of accurately interpreting other’s beliefs, intentions, and mood-states. Whereas reading non-fiction literature supports left brain functioning with improving concentration and application of problem-solving skills.


Why does my therapist read and recommend that I do too?


1. Reading fosters empathy and compassion


Those who actively engage in reading, whether consistent or sporadic, present with higher levels of empathy and compassion for others. Reading supports one’s ability to understanding the feelings and beliefs of others as they sit with varying perspectives from the varying authors points of view. This process supports increased EQ (Emotional Intelligence). When EQ increases, this opens the door for improved communication. This is also known as the development of “soft skills”, the ability to effectively communicate from learned and modeled examples, as provided within character dialogues and perspectives.



2. Reading provides an outlet of opportunity for decreasing restlessness and anxiousness


Studies report that reading for at least 30 minutes can support the Bottom-Up (body to mind) Process in decreasing anxiousness. Thirty minutes of reading was seen to lower blood pressure and decrease heart rate. This function was supportive of decreasing a spectrum of psychological distress, just as effective as we see in the practice of yoga, and in utilizing humor as a form of coping. Research states that being submersed in a captivating novel decreases obsessive and negative thinking leading to an overall decrease in the physiological manifestation of anxiety, the Top-Down (mind to body) Process.


3. Reading can improve sleep hygiene and sleep quality


Reading is found to be helpful with overall sleep hygiene, promoting sleep readiness and consequentially improving sleep quality. Reading before bed can be so effective that some mental health and medical professions recommend it as a start to decreasing the impacts from sleep challenges, to insomnia/sleep disturbance, as it can increase a state of relaxation and reinforce the evening cycle of melatonin production. Reading can be compared to a form of bilateral stimulation based coping, as your eyes cross over your body’s midline reading from left to right and using both hands to hold the physical copy of the book while flipping pages. Many medical and mental health clinicians recommend engaging in reading through physical books, rather than digital reading (including your beloved kindle). This form of engagement can significantly decrease evening exposure to blue light that can interrupt the melatonin production cycle, which prepares our body for falling asleep, staying asleep throughout the night, and reaching REM for quality of sleep.


4. Reading supports brain-memory health throughout life stages, including amongst older adults


Last, but definitely not least, is the ways in which reading supports the sustainability of memory. Research on Alzheimers and Dementia shows that individuals, including seniors, that engage in reading and other right brain stimulation (math, puzzles, etc) can both help maintain and improve their cognitive functioning, working memory, episodic memory, including both short-term and long-term memory functions. This form of mental stimulation activates neural pathways and circuits that strengthen the brain from being adversely impacted from age-related deficits and dysfunctions. Reading can be so beneficial that those who read throughout their life showed decreased risk of developing physical lesions, and tau-protein tangles found in the brains of those with Dementia.


How our team practices what we preach


Many of our therapist engage in reading for leisure, as well as a means to staying updated and engaged in the developing and ever-growing mental health field. When reading is brought into the work we do with clients, it is often referred to as bibliotherapy. Bibliotherapy is when reading is utilized as a tool in and out of sessions for psychoeducation, improving self-awareness and increased insight, as well as an assigned form of self-care, similar in ways to journaling. Bibliotherapy is often utilized as a tool within therapy to deepen understanding and treat disorders and symptoms related to depression, anxiety, adverse-traumatic life experiences, familial and interpersonal dysfunction and so on.

Bibliotherapy is often practiced though creative arts therapy, as well as within CBT, DBT, and narrative models. Not only can bibliotherapy be practiced through reading, but also applied through the form of reflection, storytelling and retelling within a safe and validating space. In bonus, bibliotherapy promotes positive social behavior, compassionate understanding of differing values, and solidifying confidence in personal identity and ones own ethnic-cultural pride for improved self-esteem and self-worth.


If you are interested in physically experiencing the benefits of reading and exploring what books are on our therapists shelves, please take a look at our active list of books that several of those on our team have not only read, but directly recommend to clients, colleagues and all those alike.






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