Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reading Books May Lessen Depression

My STEMmy friends like to claim that reading has little value.  They will, of course, add a caveat that everyone needs to know how to read a newspaper or instruction manual, but reading literature has little to no worth.  Well known STEMmers like President Barack Obama want to "[p]repare 100,000 more science, technology, engineering, and math teachers by the end of the decade."  During his campaign, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard claimed, "We will hold our schools to high standards, so that every student has a strong background in STEM fields. We will also ensure that schools have the tools and resources they need to meet those standards. That may mean considering creative approaches to attract and retain more math and science teachers."  In short STEM is far more important that squishy subjects like literature.  After all, STEM bakes bread and paves roads and designs computers; literature does nothing to add value to the economy.

Now via Big Boy Blogger Andrew Sullivan at his new Daily Beast digs, comes this little tidbitteens who read are better able to deal with depression.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied 106 teens, 46 of whom were clinically depressed, over five weekends, and surveyed them repeatedly on their media use. The kids who listened to the most music were the most likely to be depressed; kids who read the most were the least likely. Other forms of media — TV, movies, magazines, video games, and the Internet — had no significant effect.
The press release that announced the study notes that "[m]ajor depressive disorder, also referred to as clinical or major depression, is the leading cause of disability in the world. Its onset is common in adolescents and is thought to affect one in 12 teenagers, according to the National Institute of Mental Health."  Depression is estimated to cost over $30 billion per year.

The study doesn't speculate as to why reading seems to lessen depression nor does it make any conclusions about whether listening to music actually increases depression.  Dr. Brian Primack the study's author says, "At this point, it is not clear whether depressed people begin to listen to more music to escape, or whether listening to large amounts of music can lead to depression, or both. Either way, these findings may help clinicians and parents recognize links between media and depression,"

Anna North, however, does suggest a couple of reasons for reading's ability to combat may help fight depression. 
Having a favorite writer is a little like having a favorite rock star, in that even though she might be The Only One Who Understands You, she's probably never going to be your friend. At the same time, many writers, at least of fiction, are less closely identified with their subjects than singers are with their songs. You don't really feel you know Charlotte Brontë when you read Jane Eyre — you feel you know Jane, and since she's fictional, you actually do know everything there is to know about her. You're as close to her as you can possibly be, and in a way, that's satisfying.
The study also points out "[i]t also is important that reading was associated with less likelihood of depression. This is worth emphasizing because overall in the U.S., reading books is decreasing, while nearly all other forms of media use are increasing."  In short, we may be harming the most vulnerable teens by pushing STEM upon them at the expense of reading books.

North concludes, "I don't think art's highest goal is to make us happy — my music library is so dripping with misery that it sounds like a party mix for a funeral. But I do think that for people who feel confused by and isolated from humanity — that is, teenagers — there's something to be said for reading."

Like North, I don't think art should be functional before it's artistic.  The wise man who was the department chair when I was first hired at my current job told me "just teach them to love literature."  That goal is getting more difficult when everything has to have a price tag or a function.  Maybe the STEMmers will sit up and take notice now.  After all this is study conducted by a someone in a STEM discipline and reading might help the economy by reducing a $30 billion expense.

1 comment:

caheidelberger said...

Fascinating! I wonder: if there is a causal relationship, might reading do mroe good than music on depression in that it focuses teens' attention differently? Could there be a difference in the parts of the brain that are activated? Maybe sustained reading elicits a balance of reason and emotion, whereas music triggers more emotion than reason, and somehow that would affect the depression levels in readers and listeners differently?