|William Shakespeare (L) & William Wordsworth (R)|
The works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth are “rocket-boosters” to the brain and better therapy than self-help books, researchers will say this week.
Scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University have found that reading the works of the Bard and other classical writers has a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the reader’s attention and triggers moments of self-reflection.
Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read works by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, T.S Eliot and others.
They then “translated” the texts into more “straightforward”, modern language and again monitored the readers’ brains as they read the words.
Scans showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.
Scientists were able to study the brain activity as it responded to each word and record how it “lit up” as the readers encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.
This “lighting up” of the mind lasts longer than the initial electrical spark, shifting the brain to a higher gear, encouraging further reading.
The research also found that reading poetry, in particular, increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with “autobiographical memory”, helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they have read. The academics said this meant the classics were more useful than self-help books.
Philip Davis, an English professor who has worked on the study with the university’s magnetic resonance centre, will tell a conference this week: “Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain.
"The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.”
In the first part of the research, the brain activity of 30 volunteers was monitored as they read passages from Shakespeare plays, including King Lear, Othello, Coriolanus and Macbeth, and again as they read the text rewritten in simpler form.
While reading the plain text, normal levels of electrical activity were displayed in their brains. When they read Shakespeare, however, the levels of activity “jumped” because of his use of words which were unfamiliar to the readers.
Scans of brain activity during reading show heightened electrical activity when faced with 'challenging' texts by great writers
In one example, 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.”
Shakespeare’s use of the adjective “mad” as a verb sparked a higher level of brain activity than the straightforward prose.
The study went on to test how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention”.
Working with psychologists at the university, the next phase of the research is looking at the extent to which poetry can provide therapeutic benefit, using the work of, among others William Wordsworth, Henry Vaughan, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.
Volunteers brains have been 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.”
Four “translated” lines were also provided: “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 first version caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.
The brain shows minimal activity when the text is translated into 'modern' prose
Intense activity is this area of the brain suggests that the poetry triggers “reappraisal mechanisms” causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences in light of what they read.
“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,” said Professor Davis, who will present the findings at the North of England education conference in Sheffield next week.
“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.”
Professor Davis hopes to scan the brains of volunteers reading Charles Dickens to test if revisions the writer made to his prose spark greater brain activity than the original text.
He is now working with the charity The Reader Organisation to establish reading aloud groups in GP drop-in centres, care homes, prisons, libraries, schools and mother and toddler groups.
Joint research with University College London will also study the effects of reading in dementia sufferers.
Julie Henry is Education Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, joining in 2003 from the Times Educational Supplement. Named specialist writer of the year at the 2005 British Press Awards, she has written articles and features covering the SATs marking debacle, the shortage of university places, higher education admission rows, the scramble for good school places, grammar schools, academies, and changes to exams and the school curriculum.
(source : telegraph.co.uk)