The healing power of literature: This is your mind on Leonard Cohen
By Peter Collins and Dilnaz Garda
By Peter Collins and Dilnaz Garda
In the popular Emmy-winning television show, Ted Lasso, the main protagonist is an American College football coach, from a second-tier division, who is hired to coach an English Premier League that is facing relegation. Regarded by the owner and players as incompetent, he slowly wins over all his detractors with his folksy optimism. In an early season one episode, he gifts a book, individually chosen for each and every one of his players that will address their individual shortcomings and serve as an inspiration.
The healing power of the word, through literature, has been recognized since ancient times. Above the library entrance in the ancient Greek city of Thebes, was the inscription that the building was a ‘healing place for the soul’. The term Bibliotherapy first appeared in a 1916 article in Atlantic Magazine. According to a 2015 New Yorker magazine article written by short-story author, Ceridwen Dovey, after World War I, traumatized soldiers were often ‘prescribed’ a course of reading to help them heal. In Britain, books authored by Jane Austen were highly recommended for the same purpose, and librarians in the United States were trained as to what reading to recommend to the returning soldiers.
In 2013, Berthoud and Elderkin published a book entitled The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, written in the style of a medical dictionary that matched ailments, ranging from abandonment to zestlessness, with 751 suggested ‘reading cures’. Berthoud and Elderkin believe that a novel is a collection of experiences transmitted from the mind of one to the mind of another. As well as offering a way to unwind and to learn about life as a distraction, entertainment and diversion literature can be much more powerful. A novel, or short story, read at the right time in one’s life can – quite literally – change it.
This belief is supported by science. In 2013, Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University, published an analysis of 86 Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies. He concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists refer to this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions as ‘theory of mind’.
Dr. Mar, in collaboration with University of Toronto’s Dr. Keith Oatley, discovered that individuals who frequently read literature seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Norman Rosenthal, published a book entitled Poetry Rx. He believes poetry can act as a kind of medicine. Rosenthal said, “Although all literature can console, there is something about great poetry – its rhythms and cadences, its consciousness and brilliance – that has a power and charm all its own.” The book has 50 poems suggested by Rosenthal under the categories of loving and losing; responses to nature; aspects of the human experience; living in a search for meaning; and the last phase of life.
A poem I always found to be inspirational also became the namesake for the Invictus Games first held in London, England, in 2014. These games are the Olympic Games for wounded warriors. The word ‘invictus’ means unconquered, and it was chosen because it embodies the fighting spirit of wounded, injured and ill veterans, and personifies what these tenacious men and women can achieve post injury.
The poem, Invictus, was written by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). To me it means never give up:
“Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.”
During these tough pandemic times, literature can be therapeutic for anyone. Try it.
- Dovey, C. (2015) Can Reading Make You Happier? New Yorker Magazine, 9 June 2015.
- Berthoud, E. & Elderkin, S. (2013) The Novel Cure – an A-Z of literary remedies. Toronto: Penguin Random House.
- Rosenthal, N. (2021) Poetry Rx – how fifty inspiring poems can heal and bring joy to your life. Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Gildan Media.
Dr. Peter Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Behaviour Analysis Section. He is also a member of the crisis/hostage negotiation team of the Toronto Police Service Emergency Task Force. Dr. Collins’ opinions are his own. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dilnaz Garda is the President of Canada Beyond the Blue and the head of the English Department at a high school with the York Region Board of Education.