Monday, May 19, 2008

On Literature and Health

Is it possible for literature to help make us healthy? Such an idea has fell into disfavor, with postmodernists in particular pointing to the Nazis as art-lovers, suggesting that art does not necessarily make us good people. Fair enough. If we look at all art as a group, it is hard to come to the conclusion that art per se results in any sort of moral improvement. But does that mean there is no such thing as a form or style or content of art or an art which could result in moral improvement?

In "Narrative Construction and Health," Kitty Klein says that if "highly negative experiences are difficult to assimilate into one's understanding of oneself and the world," it is because we don't have a sufficient knowledge base (memories of previous events) "to understand and interpret the stressful event" (Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. David Herman, 63. Stanford, CA: CSLI Pub.), then perhaps we should help people develop such a knowledge base. Before such an event, and certainly after one, works of literature which deal with the same traumatic situations should be assigned. The reader assimilates works of literature into their own knowledge base -- including the emotions expressed. As a consequence, those who have read the right kinds of literature (fiction, memoirs, etc.) with the right kind of guidance should be more prepared to deal with traumatic events. By allowing us to have a context for stressful situations, we will be able to assimilate our feelings and memories better, preventing them from becoming intrusive. After a stressful event, writing a story about it also helps (as it did Goethe as he wrote "The Sorrows of Young Werther"). Writing a story contextualizes the event, which gives it meaning and, when fictionalized, a story can put distance between you and the event. It is often the absence of meaning which makes an event cause a person to dwell on a situation, trying to place the event into some sort of context. By giving the event meaning, through some sort of narrative, the person is able to assimilate the event psychologically and emotionally. By writing a fictionalized account, with the event happening to someone else, one is able to see that it's not really a unique event, that it could happen to someone else. By writing such a sympathetic story, we are able to have someone who can suffer with us -- misery loves company because at least we know we're not alone. Further, a story changes a particular event into a universal/conceptual event -- which brings us back to the argument that it allows us to be able to assimilate the event into the world, to see that it's a part of existence, not just for us, but for others as well.

Klein observes that expressive writing (which focuses on thoughts and feelings) of several stories (3-4) about a problem until a coherent story was developed (one could imagine that revision would also help) not only produces psychological health in all but those who experienced the most severely disruptive traumas, but also improved physical health (lower blood pressure, improved immune systems, arthritis relief, etc.) (66-71) by 23%. The soul and the body are one, the former emergent from the latter, but in turn influential on the body too. If we improve our souls, our bodies will improve as well.

So it seems likely that literature can improve our health. The evidence is in for writing, as noted above. A more difficult study, but one which I think would be worth while to pursue, would be to see if there is a relationship between the kinds of literature read and an individual's ability to deal with traumatic events. If one's inability to deal with a psychologically traumatic event is related to lack of experience, literature can, through the fact that humans are sympathetic and do feel the pain of others, as brain research has shown, give us the experiences we need to deal with traumatic events in a more healthy way -- before the fact, rather than after it.

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