Based on texts by ABAL members: Dr. Joseph Gold (Family Therapist, Professor Emeratis), Dr. Rober Oxlade (Psychiatrist), Dr. Jeanette Romkema (Educator), and Dr. Stephen Bonnycastle (Literary Theorist)
What is "Bibliotherapy"?
A Short Conceptualization - Stephen Bonnycastle, "Bibliotherapy in action: A reader's developing responses." Textual Studies in Canada 13/14 (The Bibliotherapy Issue, 2004), p.1.
A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement. Bibliotherapy deals with how and why this happens, and how this process can be put to use in ways which improve our lives as individuals and as social beings.
A Brief History - Jeanette Romkema, "Principles and Practices of Bibliotherapy: A Workshop," presented to the Association for Bibliotherapy and Applied Literature, Royal Military College, Kingston, ON, June 12th, 2004.
Many therapists, educators, health practitioners, artists and other professionals have been practicing a form of bibliotherapy for centuries. Although the origins of "bibliotherapy" may date back to the nineteenth century, a time when the term referred to the use of books in hospitals to calm patients, it is now used to describe a wide range of practices: elementary school teachers using children’s picture books in identity formation, therapists using fiction in personal healing, and palliative caregivers using films to help people explore the fear of death. The term bibliotherapy has been evolving, yet the complexity of the practice has not been fully developed. Practitioners need to hear each others’ definitions of bibliotherapy so that we have a more complete understanding of how this term is being used and can incorporate new elements and concepts.
More Details of the Concept and Its Application - Joseph Gold, from a course on Bibliotherapy to be taught at Laurentian University (written in 2009).
Biliotherapy has been used to describe the reading of literature, in the first instance, and then, as the term became more inclusive, to the activity of writing poetry, journals and letters, in the effort to help people cope with a variety of painful situations. Whether the problem addressed be physical discomfort or disability, emotional conflict or suffering like loss, divorce, or problems arising from social situations in family, work or community, patients have used reading and writing, along with “the talking cure,” to change and improve how they feel and behave. In the clinical setting, these readings have often been prescribed; often they have been introduced by patients themselves.
The theory underpinning such reading and writing is that certain readings, whether poetry, essay or story, when decoded and somatised by the “patient,” can moderate the feelings, opinions and/or the mood of the person transforming words into neural representations in the reader. This is achieved, I hypothesize, (in the absence of widely based scientific research), because the reader interprets the words as information about how the world, as experienced and described by the writer, can be realised in the brain/mind of the reader. The writer’s composition of people, places, relations, politics, etc., must be similar enough to the reader’s to induce him or her to lend their brain to the work of acquisition. At the same time this composition must be different enough to produce a helpful shift in outlook. So it is that writers say they cannot read their own work, until they are changed enough to see it as not identical to their new selves. There must be detachment as well as identification, for judgement, assessment and integration to take place.
The assumptions underlying the hypothesis are based on continual, commonplace observations that humans make from birth. We see how people react to learning all kinds of information, and we see the results such learning produces in the expressions, language and behaviour of the listener or reader. Information produces changes in the receiver him or herself, whose brain and body, unlike a radio or phone, is not unaltered by the news passing through it. Unlike a machine, the human brain and its extended organism is changed by the meaning of the lexicon decoded by that brain. Unless of course the lexicon is in a language unknown to the reading brain.
In human brains the reader’s biochemistry is altered as aspects of the recipient/reader are emotionally changed in the service of adaptation. The information may be of such a nature that action may need to be taken in the interests of safety or well being. For instance, we are aware of listening carefully to reports about weather warnings, epidemics, air raids, in order to protect ourselves and make our plans. We are much less aware that information within storied texts interweaves with our personal narratives in countless areas involving relationships, behaviour and connections in all aspects of our daily lives. How we can read to achieve this connection to the text, to enhance this rich learning experience, is teachable and learnable. The skill that makes this possible can become a habit of thought and feeling, requiring the permission and active engagement of the reader. The first requirement of such teaching is raising the reader’s awareness of this potential.
The changes that arise from new information that is helpful can alter the central and autonomic nervous system producing increased levels of endorphins, increasing hope and expectations, lessening feelings of isolation and self pity, assisting in planning, future thinking, problem solving, activating imagination and therefore creativity, increasing important knowledge of the world and improving self knowledge by means of reflection upon reading. All and any of these may have the benefit of providing relief from repetitive and compulsive cycles of negative thinking, from despair, and from a feeling of cognitive emotional entrapment. New ways of evaluating our acquired data help us review and revise our relationships to others and our environment.
The reports of such reading outcomes are countless. Every book club and every call-in show that asks for testimony of help from books produces innumerable stories about reading and healing. Of course these answers are shaped by the framing of the question. But what if we took the “help” and “healing” out of the question? By far the greatest number of readings of novels, poems, essays, self help books and so on take place outside any framework of what we have been calling "bibliotherapy," and outside any clinical setting. Such internalisation of fiction or fact has the potential to play a large and helpful role in the life of the reader. What takes place in a therapeutic context can happen for every reader when provided with the appropriate materials, the care, the guidance, the coaching, the education as to how to read holistically.
We arrive on earth equipped with a story template developed over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. I think it is entirely possible to teach a new level of consciousness to readers regarding their own reading process. It will of course be obvious that this idea has a strong biological bias or tone, and the more we learn about our selves as organisms, the more this tone will be evident. There is a growing body of information on human development and the complexity of thinking and feeling in the formation of our personal identities, as well as knowledge of what hinders healthy development.This growing awareness can now be built into the arts and humanities. Holistic reading is the term I am using for an expanded inclusion into general education of bibliotherapy.
Beyond Reading Literature - Robert Oxlade, a note for the ABAL website, 2004
Bibliotherapy refers to the use of literature as an aid to therapy, particularly for people suffering from psychological trauma or mental illness. In general, however, the term signifies a common thread that we can all, in our different ways, contribute to or benefit from, reading and writing to enhance health, growth, healing and well-being. Bibliotherapy has rapidly evolved in scope and sophistication to become an area of interdisciplinary study and practice. It now links professionals from the world of language, literature and arts with educators, psychologists, and clinical therapists from a wide range of professional backgrounds and focus. It has extended from its original book-reading dialogue therapy to include therapeutic uses of writing. The medium also has expanded from print to include audio-visual aspects of narrative through, for example, film and video.
Some Research Directions - Hoi F. Cheu
Recent achievements in our understanding of neuroplasticity and the ecology of the mind have brought new insights into the concept of bibliotherapy. What Norman Doidge calls "The Culturally Modified Brain" has dissolved a century old nature vs. nurture discourse: "Not only does the brain shape culture, culture shapes the brain (The Brain that Changes Itself, Penguin, 2007, p. 287). We now have scientific observations to demonstrate that cultural activities can change brain structures. This knowledge has significant implications to the study of literature. After decades of cultural construction theories, we can now reunite with the scientists to investigate a biological approach to literature without going against what we know experientially - literature, or complex storytelling in any form, is natural and beneficial to "the symbolic species," as the medical anthropologist Terrance Deacon refers to human beings.
But still we know little about the actual interrelations between storytelling and brain structure. There is much room for new discovery and breakthrough in brain science and medicine. From a "humanities" perspective, the awareness may also imply a necessary enquiry into the application of literature beyond cultural, psychoanalytic, and political criticism. It is time to study more closely how to engage the brain and the process of "literature." We can no longer consider literature to be a form of high art; instead, it is time for literary scholars to look more closely into how the personal and the political, as well as the biological and the technological, aspects of "stories" rewire the brain and rewrite life. And, in turn, how the brain can restructure our cultural landscape through inventing metaphors, articulating feelings, extending connections, and turning neuro-impulses into personal and social transformations. In light of bibliotherapy, literary education is about engaging the process of "literature" as a basic survival resource. By literature, bibliotherapy refers to the storytelling process: a human activity that learns and uses symbolic language to make connections, to make sense, and consequently to create identities and self-consciousness. Literature is an adaptive human behaviour for responding to and coping with change. To conduct a full scale of investigation of literature's benefits and learn how to engage bibliotherapy more effectively, we need a new round of trans-disciplinary conversations among arts and sciences.