Sunday, 20 January 2013

Reading Classics, Not a Waste of Time

Yesterday evening, after I had just published my post/book review on The Vicar of Wakefield, I was having a glance at my daily newspaper. There I happened to find a short notice which caught my interest, entitled Poetry is good for the brain. Today I managed to find the longer article which was referred to. Here’s an excerpt + a link to the whole.

Excerpts from an article in The Telegraph, 13 January 2013
(by Julie Henry, Education Correspondent)

Shakespeare and Wordsworth boost the brain, new research reveals

Scientists, psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University have found that reading the works of Shakespeare 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.

Scans of brain activity during reading show heightened electrical activity when faced with 'challenging' texts by great writers

The brain shows minimal activity when the text is translated into 'modern' prose

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.

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: “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”


  1. I'm not sure how to respond to that Monica. I love Shakespeare so I can well imagine that my brain responds but what about those who loathe it? Poetry is an interesting one. Wordsworth and Keats and the like would trigger totally different responses I would have thought to some of the modern poetry which may be challenging but just turns me off (whilst, I'm sure, turning the little parts of my brain a very bright orange!).

    1. Graham, I'd not be surprised if even reading articles like this turn little parts of my brain orange, as they always seem to set me too wondering about all the aspects NOT mentioned. But I would agree from personal experience that very often a good work of classic fiction does more for me than any title starting with "10 simple steps to..."

  2. Monica, I found this rather interesting. Scientists love delving into stuff like this, and I sometimes gripe about the amount of research grants that are given to them, but I love to read the interesting findings.


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