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Emily Troscianko

Why We Need Cognitive Literary Studies (To Help Us Understand and Treat Mental Illness)

26 October 2016

Contrary to long-cherished belief, studying literature can be useful in all sorts of ways. In this talk I set out the guiding logic, practice, and current results of one such way. The logic is as follows:

  1. A lot of people spend a lot of time reading fiction.
  2. Mental health is likely to play some role (probably as both cause and effect) in those meetings of mind and text.
  3. Eating disorders are perhaps the most culturally inflected of all mental illnesses, so people suffering from, recovering from, or susceptible to disordered eating may be particularly likely to respond to fiction in therapeutically significant ways.
  4. Eating disorders are the most embodied of ‘mental’ illnesses, so those responses and their after-effects may be manifested physically as well as psychologically.
  5. Fiction is complicated, as are people, so the causes, experiences, and effects of fiction-reading will be complex too, even though ‘bibliotherapy’ practitioners (and perhaps some literary scholars) would like to believe reading ‘proper’ literature must reliably do more good than harm. More research is needed!

As for the pragmatics of doing that research, I’ll cover some of the basic challenges: working with other disciplines and systems of knowledge, with non-academic partners, and with clinical populations; designing experiments and making sense of the results; and dovetailing the empirical and theoretical strands. I’ll illustrate all these points with findings and learning experiences from my partnership with the UK eating disorders charity Beat; from the Books, Minds, and Bodies reading-group project; and from my own theoretical work and personal reflections on eating disorders and reading.

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