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Monday, October 19, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: The Psychological Benefits of Reading Literature

In a prior article, I began a discussion about how reading literature with complex characters is beneficial to the brain.  In this article, I'll expand on this topic and discuss the potential emotional and psychological benefits of reading literature.

The Psychological Benefits of Reading Literature

Aside from the enjoyment and emotional comfort of reading literature, there can be considerable psychological benefits of reading well-written literature with complex characters.

Developing Psychological Insight
As I mentioned in my prior article, when we read about a character, especially a character that we identify with, who overcomes psychological issues, we can gain insight into our own personal struggles and, possibly, see aspects of our problems in new ways.

We can also gain psychological insight from the characters' missteps and identify with their emotional vulnerabilities.

Developing Empathy
In addition, when we're immersed in well written literature, we often feel empathetic towards the characters and this could help in developing empathy for ourselves and others.

Learning About Other Cultures and Historical Times
By reading about other cultures and historical times, it opens us up beyond our own circumscribed lives.

As they open up a new world for us, literature offers us the possibility of new ways of thinking and feeling.  Literature can also give us a perspective about how history affects us now.

Developing a Sense of Curiosity
Being exposed to new ways of thinking and feeling can help to develop a greater sense of curiosity and psychological-mindedness.

Seeing conflicts and emotional dilemmas in a new light can shed light on our own problems and challenge habitual ways of thinking.

There are many examples in literature that provide the psychological benefits that I've discussed above.

Let's take a look at two authors, who are famous for providing stories with psychological depth, Jane Austen and Marcel Proust.

Jane Austen's Books
From Jane Austen's books, including  Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park, we can learn about what it means to get to know yourself as you mature, and to realize that you might not be the person who you thought you were, and the people that you thought you knew can be quite different from who you thought they were.

Jane Austen's Historical Home

We learn how to take the perspective of seeing ourselves through someone else's eyes.

In Sense and Sensibility, two sisters, who have different ways of relating and responding to their worlds, learn from each other, over time, which helps each of them to gain self understanding as well as a new perspective about others.

There are many lessons to be learned from her books about family relationships and romantic relationships.

Austen also gives us guidance in how to live ethically under unethical or corrupt circumstances.

Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time
Let's look at some examples from another book that is considered a classic, In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust:

As a young Frenchman, the protagonist falls in love with Albertine, whom he first sees at a beach resort called Balbec, which was modeled after the resort town of Cabourg in France.

In Search of Lost Time: Balbec (Cabourg, France)

Initially, he is obsessed with her and her friends and tries to find ways to meet them.

After he begins a relationship with Albertine and she moves in with him in Paris, he is torn with ambivalence as to whether he wants to remain in the relationship or he wants to end it.

While she is awake, he is tormented with jealousy and suspicion, and he wants to end it, but when she is asleep, all the love and tender feelings that he has for her arise in him again, and he wants to remain in the relationship.



As most people know from their own experiences, being in love often involves ambivalence as well as irrational behavior, including irrational jealousy where there is no objective reason to be jealous.

The protagonist wants Albertine to love him more.  But how he goes about trying to increase her passion for him (by being dismissive and rejecting her) has the opposite effect.

Rather than serving to increase her passion, his emotional distance and rejecting nature serve only to alienate her and she eventually gets fed up and leaves him.

After she leaves, he realizes that he made a terrible mistake and, after a few false starts, he eventually writes to her offering to do anything to get her back.

The story goes on with many twists and turns.

Reading this part of the story, many people could identify with the protagonist's ambivalence and his irrational behavior, including believing that a "cold shoulder" towards a loved one would make the loved one even more passionate to pursue the relationship.

No doubt sometimes giving a lover a "cold shoulder" might work temporarily, but it often backfires in the end (if it works at all), as many people who do this realize when they're thinking more clearly.

In addition to the psychological insights about romantic relationships and friendships, Proust gives many other examples where people use psychological defense mechanisms, including denial, to cope with difficult situations.

As an example, Charles Swann, who is in love with Odette and wants to pursue a relationship with her, receives an anonymous letter about Odette's personal history of having many sexual affairs with rich men and even worked as a prostitute.  At the time, this would have been scandalous.

In Search of Lost Time: Swann In Love With Odette

Swann is intelligent and has a momentary insight that Odette is only interested in him for his money, but he is also somewhat naive.

With an unconscious gesture of wiping his glasses clean, which is a metaphor for his defense mechanism of not wanting to see, he ignores the warning signs that he has been seeing as well as the information in the anonymous letter. Instead,  he pursues the relationship to his detriment.

Rather than giving a lengthy explanation about Swann's unconscious choice of choosing to ignore his insights and anonymous warning letter, Proust shows Swann making the a small unconscious gesture of wiping his glasses clean.  From this small unconscious gesture, the reader can see what Swann refuses to see about himself and Odette.

Many people could identify with Charles Swann and remember times when they ignored internal and external warnings by pursuing a relationship fraught with problems because this is a common mistake that many people make when they fall in love.

As another example, many of the characters are either part of the aristocracy or part of the bourgeoisie in Paris.  Madame Verdurin, who is a bourgeois Bohemian hostess, has social gatherings with her "little clan" of acquaintances, including artists and musicians.

Proust, who is an astute observer of interpersonal relationships and who used people that he really knew (or composites of people that he knew) in his book, provides us with a humorous description of Madame Verdurin, who outwardly professes a disdain for aristocrats by calling them "bores" and professing that she would never attend one of their social events.

But, despite what she says, everything else about her, her gestures, her looks, her demeanor, says how much she longs to be accepted by aristocratic society, who reject her early on in the story.

During that same time period, Sigmund Freud was writing about how unconscious thoughts manifest, despite what the conscious mind might believe.  Similarly, In Search of Lost Time, Proust gives us rich descriptions of the unconscious thoughts and motivations of his characters, including Monsieur Swann and Madame Verdurin.

Sigmund Freud and the Unconscious Mind

Reading about the unconscious thoughts and motivations of the characters in the story, you can't help but recognize yourself and others, if not in exactly the same situation, then in other situations where denial was used as a psychological defense mechanism.

In Search of Lost Time is about many things, including an aspiring writer's struggle to gain confidence in himself and in his writing, how unconscious memories are aroused by certain sensory experiences, the passage of time, how people and places change over time, and how our perspective about life and relationships can also change over time.

Sometimes, while reading literature with complex characters, a psychological insight might come to the reader as an epiphany.  Other times, it will come as a familiar recognition.  It might also come as a relief that these psychological phenomena are common to other people and not just to the reader.


About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.















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