In ancient Egypt, libraries were known as psyches iatreion, “sanatoriums of the soul.”

Now, science is starting to prove what readers and writers have long known: Words can help us repair and revitalize our bodies as well as our minds. As a result, bibliotherapy—reading specific texts in response to particular situations or conditions—is becoming more and more popular among psychologists, physicians, librarians and teachers.

A 2007 study involving 112 smelter workers in New Brunswick, Canada, for instance, found that workers who read a lot had greater protection against some of the effects of lead poisoning. Both readers and non-readers suffered equally from lead-caused motor impairment, but the non-readers had higher levels of intellectual impairment due to the brain damage the heavy metal can cause.

When reading, our brains simulate what happens in the story, using the same circuits we’d use if the same things happened to us. On a neurological level, we become part of the action.

The brain straddles fact and fiction when we read, which is why Michael Duda, a psychologist in private practice in Dortmund, Germany, believes books are so powerful and why they “act like a key that opens the door to a person’s inner world.” Simulating the feelings and experiences of literary figures “allows readers to perceive and express their own emotions,” he says.

From Ode magazine's October 2010 issue