From literary studies to an anorexia recovery app

There are some problems in life that an app can’t solve. But my research and my personal experience suggest some reasons why anorexia doesn’t necessarily fall into this category.

Dr Emily Troscianko is a Research Associate at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Her monograph ‘Kafka’s Cognitive Realism’ (2014) explores the strange experiences we call ‘Kafkaesque’, and the third edition of the textbook Consciousness: An Introduction, coauthored with Dr Susan Blackmore, comes out in April. You can find her blog ‘A Hunger Artist’ here.
“ Successful recovery from anorexia encompasses everything from the apparent banality of eating breakfast as planned to the grand questions about what it means to be in control or whether you aspire to normality or what you really want for your life.”

For example: Anorexia can be bound up with any number of complex psychological and social difficulties, but it is also a rather simple illness of starvation. It involves destructively obsessive rigidities of thought and behaviour emanating out from food and one’s body to the rest of life — but that obsessiveness can, paradoxically, also be channelled into the systematic eating and weight restoration which start to overturn the disorder. Successful recovery from anorexia encompasses everything from the apparent banality of eating breakfast as planned to the grand questions about what it means to be in control or whether you aspire to normality or what you really want for your life.

An app has the capacity to embrace all these levels. Because it’s with you most of the time, it can remind you to eat or let you record what you just ate; it can inspire you with a line from a novel you love; and it can prompt you to record the changes in mood, energy levels, or how you feel about your body that might otherwise get lost in the turmoil of recovery. And because it can learn from how you use it and the data you give it, it can offer you the kind of overview and feedback it’s easy to lose in the preoccupations of this meal, this sensation, this fear. So it can gauge the time to help you through major challenges like starting to eat with other people again or letting weight gain continue past some arbitrary ‘minimum healthy’ boundary. And it can help you articulate and bear in mind the reasons why recovery is even what you want — and keep acting on them.

All this will require careful attention to the language that creates the primary connection between the user and the technology. Which linguistic structures will be most effective in prompting change of different kinds at different stages for different people? Which might be unhelpful? How can we best harness the crucial psychological capacity to change thought and behaviour in structured ways, without playing directly into the hands of the very obsession that could so easily keep you trapped?

Many forms of expertise will be needed to make this a reality, and I don’t have them all. However, my cognitive-literary research on the psychological effects of literary reading (especially on mental imagery, memory, and emotional responses) and latterly my work on the health-related effects of reading (which I discuss in a companion piece to this one, here) provide the foundation. The app will also harness my own past experience of anorexia and the blog on eating disorders which I have run for the last nine years on the US site Psychology Today. Through the blog I have interacted with many hundreds of readers, trying to find the right words to help them trace a path through the difficulty, the fear, or the confusion towards ways of thinking and acting that will let them be healthier, calmer, happier, freer. Perhaps I’ve got a bit better at it over the years; certainly I’ve learned a vast amount from trying.

Creating something which can be there to offer the words that are needed when someone needs them most feels like it might be one way to perform a meaningful kind of alchemy on my history and my research.

You can read Emily’s Psychology Today blog ‘A Hunger Artist’ here.

Watch this video for more information on the app, or read more here.

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Want to read more? Try our articles on: How do your reading habits shape your health — and vice versa?, Our Oxford Community: University Mental Health Day 2018, and How is your lifestyle affecting your brain?