Anxious? Depressed? Literate? Try Bibliotherapy

The London-based School of Life’s Bibliotherapy program has a growing fan-base among Londoners who appreciate its relatively low-cost, non-medicalized approach to the anxieties that are characteristic of modern life.

 

 Anxious? Depressed? Literate? Try Bibliotherapy

What's the Big Idea? 


 One of the unfortunate early casualties of a data-driven world is anything that can’t easily be measured. The great promise of the recent push toward the collection and analysis of “big data”  is scientific reproducibility. If we collect enormous data sets on how millions of people behave, we can more consistently produce things they want and need. The illusion – created in part by the marketing advance guard of the data-mining firms – is that we’re already there. 

But many valuable things remain unmeasurable, and though we may be eager to transcend once and for all the dark ages of human superstition, we’re foolish and premature when we dismiss intuition entirely. As generations of book lovers will tell you, literature transforms us. If pressed to say exactly how, most of us will mutter something about perspective or the experience of entering another person’s consciousness. But all would agree that our best-loved books have in some significant way changed us for the better. 

Author Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists, How Proust Can Change Your Life) and his partners at the London-based School of Life have taken this intuition a step further. Their “bibliotherapy” program matches individuals struggling in any aspect of their lives with a list of books hand-selected to help them through tough times. You get your reading list after an initial consultation with a bibliotherapist in which you discuss your life, your reading history, and your problems. 

[VIDEO] Alain de Botton on Bibliotherapy

No, there’s no training program – the three bibliotherapists currently on staff include a longtime small bookstore owner, an author and an artist. And of course, they’re all avid, lifelong readers. No there’s no objective measure of the results – all the (abundant) evidence of bibliotherapy’s efficacy is anecdotal. And no, bibliotherapy is probably not the best remedy for schizophrenia. 

What it does offer is distance from and perspective on your troubles as you view them through the lens of other people’s lives. The people are mostly fictional (though some non-fiction is also prescribed) but they’re dealing with issues just like yours and almost certainly approaching them differently.  

Inflexible thinking is characteristic of both anxiety and depression, the two most common psychological complaints. In their non-clinical forms, these ailments are self-perpetuating because the sufferer is locked into thought-patterns that reinforce them. While unproven, literature’s rumored power to reorient and rewire these patterns is certainly worthy of future study. 

In the meantime, the “shelf-help” program has a growing fan-base among Londoners who appreciate its relatively low-cost, non-medicalized approach to the anxieties that are characteristic of modern life. And for those dubious of literature’s healing power, the School of Life also offers walk-in talk therapy, a program which also treats a certain degree of psychological suffering as a normal, everyday occurrence. 

[VIDEO] Alain de Botton on how Proust can change your life

What's the Significance?  

What’s remarkable about the School of Life’s approach is that it flies in the face of modern Western society’s expectations of expertise and empirical evidence for the efficacy of any service more serious than a manicure. It offers alternative models for relieving our troubles at a time when professional industries and drug companies have billions invested in the notion that they, and only they are qualified to do so. 

But as Big Think blogger David Berreby recently pointed out, psychology is one science in which knowledge claims are particularly tough to verify, there being so many variables involved in human thought and behavior. 

Bibliotherapy is a rare and refreshing acknowledgement, in this age of the algorithm, that there’s quite a lot we still don’t understand, and that we’ve got other options besides suffering in silence while waiting for the science to catch up. 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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