Connecting Ideas: Shakespeare and Wordsworth Act as Brain Boosters!
According to popular notion, classic literature is considered fantastical and often lacking in logic and practicality. If you’re an avid reader and have an unwavering love for classics, you’d strongly disagree. Literature not only explores the universal truths of our existence, it uses the amazing power of syntax and linguistics to do that hence going deeper than the apparent and obvious ideas of logic. The writing style and parameters used are designed to have a certain impact on the reader and now you’ve got science on your side to support that argument.
Earlier in January 2013, scientists, psychologists and English academics carried out a research at Liverpool University, England, to demonstrate that reading the works of the Bard and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind. It catches the reader’s attention and triggers moments of self-reflection. Brain activity of volunteers was monitored using scanners as they read works by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T.S Eliot and others. The texts were then made more straightforward using modern language and the readers’ brains were again monitored as they read the words.
Resulting scans showed that the more challenging, classical prose and poetry stimulated a lot more electrical activity in the brain than the modern, abridged versions. Areas of the brain “lit up” as the readers encountered unusual words or difficult sentence structure. Interestingly, these sparks lasted longer than the initial electrical spark, allowing the brain to engage further and hence encouraging further reading.
In the first part of the research, 30 volunteers read excerpts from Shakespeare plays, including King Lear, Othello, Coriolanus and Macbeth, then the same prose rewritten in simpler form. Their brain activity was monitored in both situations. Volunteers read a line from King Lear: “A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded”. They then read a simpler version: “A father and a gracious aged man: him you have enraged.”
Heightened brain activity while reading classical prose
Shakespeare’s use of the adjective “mad” as a verb sparked a higher level of brain activity than the straightforward prose. The study further tested how long the effect lasted. It was found that the spike triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, by priming their mind for more attention.
Moreover, the research showed that reading poetry, in particular, increases activity in an area of the right hemisphere of the brain, concerned with autobiographical memory. This helps the reader to connect and compare their own experiences with what they have read and reflect upon the conclusions they might draw. The academics suggested this meant that classics were more useful than self-help books.
Volunteers’ brains were scanned while reading four lines by Wordsworth: “She lived unknown and few could know, when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me.” And then while reading a simpler version: “She lived a lonely life in the country, and nobody seems to know or care, but now she is dead, and I feel her loss.”
The actual prose caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up the left part of the brain concerned with language and also the region relating to autobiographical memory and emotion in the right hemisphere. This suggests that poetry triggers “reappraisal mechanisms” causing the reader to reflect upon and reassess their own experiences in light of what they read.
Philip Davis, an English professor who has worked on the study with the university’s magnetic resonance centre, said: “Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain. The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.”
“Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive,” Davis said, “This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.”
The next phase of the research is assessing the extent to which poetry by William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, Henry Vaughan, John Donne, Ted Hughes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Philip Larkin among others can provide therapeutic benefit. Further research in collaboration with University College London will also study the effects of reading in dementia sufferers.
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