My latest paper in the Journal of Eating Disorders: ‘Literary reading and eating disorders: Survey evidence of therapeutic help and harm’ (full open-access version here)
And in Medical Humanities, ‘Fiction-reading for good or ill: Eating disorders, interpretation, and the case for creative bibliotherapy research’ (abstract here and a little audio clip for the journal blog of me talking about how the research happened and why I think it’s important, here)
Or read short pieces I’ve written or contributed to on the same topic:
for Medium.com: How do your reading habits shape your health—and vice versa?
for The Conversation: New research explores how reading affects eating disorders – for good and ill
and for the Oxford University Arts Blog: Artistic licence: Why a book might not save your life
TLDR: For people with an eating disorder, reading fiction about eating disorders is usually perceived as strongly detrimental to health on multiple dimensions, whereas reading your preferred type of other fiction was reported to be mostly neutral or positive, especially for mood. So if you’re suffering from an eating disorder, my simplest recommendation would be: read stuff you love reading, and ditch the ED stuff.
My background in cognitive literary studies: What happens when we read
My academic background is in cognitive literary studies: investigating psychological interactions between texts and readers. I coined the term ‘cognitive realism’ to describe texts which represent some aspect of the human mind in a way that corresponds how it actually works in the mind of the reader, and I’ve explored all kinds of ways in which cognitively realistic and unrealistic texts might prompt us to respond to them differently, in terms of emotional responses as well as the mental images we experience and the meanings we generate. You can find out more about my work on visual perception and the ‘Kafkaesque’, on memory in Proust (yes, that madeleine—but saying something new about it!), on cognitive dissonance in Flaubert, and much else besides, on my personal website or via ResearchGate.
Moving into the health humanities: What health-relevant things happen when we read
My interest in the links between fiction-reading and mental health started with a story by Franz Kafka called, fittingly enough, ‘A Hunger Artist’ (Ein Hungerkünstler, which you may like to read in the German original or in a translation by Ian Johnston). In this story, published in 1919, a man fasts for other people’s entertainment, but gradually those people are losing interest. As his audiences dwindle, the hunger artist keeps fasting. I had already read the story many times, but suddenly, rereading it again, I realised something strange—or two things. First, the hunger artist is never once described as feeling any hunger. Second, I had never once noticed that the hunger artist isn’t described as feeling any hunger. Given my own past experience of anorexia, this struck me as odd. I wrote an article exploring how the text’s evocation of starvation might prompt different responses from readers with different personal histories, and how easy it is to fall into the trap of interpreting what you assume is in a text rather than what is—especially when it comes to judgements about bodies and (not) eating.
Soon afterwards, I established a partnership with the leading UK eating-disorders charity, Beat, to start to explore the connections between fiction-reading and mental health empirically. We ran an online survey which attracted nearly 900 respondents. Their thoughtful, detailed responses have generated four publications so far:
- an account of the survey methods and findings in the Journal of Eating Disorders, presenting the clear though counterintuitive finding that reading about eating disorders is perceived as almost universally damaging (open-access here)
- an argument for the wider importance of taking fiction-reading seriously in mental-health research, in Medical Humanities (here)
- a chapter in Cognitive Literary Science on the mind-body feedback loops in which reading can play a role (here)
- and a chapter in Aesthetic Illusion in Literature and the Arts on how readers talk about the ways they get immersed in what they read, and what therapeutic relevance this might have (here).
I also helped design and run a reading-group project called Books, Minds, and Bodies, which brought together academics from the cognitive, medical, and neurosciences, and from anthropology, literary studies, and psychiatry joined members of the Oxfordshire public to share the experience of reading aloud and discussing a novel in order to explore the therapeutic benefits of reading fiction. The group had two iterations, and the analysed of our transcribed conversations and participants’ feedback is now underway.
I’m now building on these activities with other empirical projects designed to pin down the cause-and-effect relationships between different kinds of reading and helpful or harmful effects on mental health.
My current projects include:
- a collaboration with Rocío Riestra Camacho, a PhD student at the University of Oviedo, who is running an experiment testing readers’ responses to two young adult sports fiction novels, with or without a specially designed reading guide;
- and a collaboration with James Carney, Wellcome Fellow in Medical Humanities at Brunel University, London, on the realtime dynamics of textual reception and creation of pro-eating disorder content on Twitter.
In this area we urgently need fewer assumptions (either that art is useless in health terms or that it’s obviously always edifying) and more testing of them. Please get in touch if you have ideas for research that needs doing and would like my input. I may not be able to help, but I can try, or point you towards others who might be able to.