There was an interesting article in the UK Newspaper, The Mail, last week, about a research project centered on the reading of literature. The researchers at the University of Liverpool found that the reading of challenging literature, particularly Shakespeare and Wordsworth, has a beneficial effect on the mind, providing a ‘rocket-boost to morale by catching the reader’s attention and triggering moments of self-reflection.’
English teachers have always taught the great writers, who continue to appear on English curriculum reading lists for all age levels, and it’s generally taken for granted that reading the works of the likes of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Dickens, Whitman, Jane Austen is good for you. But how many of them have been clear in their own minds about why that is? And, indeed, there has been a debate about the accessibility of the great writers. And there has been a shift in many school systems to more accessible modern and contemporary teenage fiction. Fortunately, even those systems retain Shakespeare on their syllabi because he is regarded as the Man – the essential core of literature – even in non-English speaking cultures. Here again, those who dictate the syllabus aren’t very clear in their own minds as to why Shakespeare is the ever present compulsory element.
The researchers conducted a series of very simple experiments. They gave the subjects passages of writing from the ‘great’ writers to read, followed by simplified versions of the passages in which the more challenging words and phrases had been substituted for something more simple. They monitored the electrical activity in the subjects’ brains, and found that the more challenging versions set off far more electrical activity than the more simple versions.
The researchers were able to study the brain’s response to individual words. They noticed that it lit up as it encountered unusual words, surprising phrases and difficult sentence structures. It was not just a momentary lighting up of the brain cells but the effect lasted for some time, indicating a brain shift to a higher gear – something more lasting than a quick impression, something creating a permanent effect, which the simplified versions did not. Philip Davis, an English professor who worked on the study, said: ‘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.’
Most interesting is that the ‘great’ writers’ careful crafting of language in order to connect with readers’ own experience has a profound effect on a reader’s brain. The brain’s encounter with their poetic language lights 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 academics concluded that the enduring language of Shakespeare and company triggers reappraisal mechanisms that cause the reader to reflect on and rethink their own experiences. In that way, particularly, they conclude that reading the classic writers is more valuable than reading self help books as by reading them you not only get what the self help books offer but also the brain development that the writers’ language provides.
Once again, in this, as in other things, our William Shakespeare heads the pack and leads the way!