"Him have you Madded" - Reading the greatest writers proved to be better than self help books...

How reading Shakespeare and Wordsworth offer better therapy than self-help  books

  • Researchers  find 'complicated' prose can give 'rocket-boost' to  brain

Reading the works of the greatest writers in  the English language can boost morale and provide better therapy than a  self-help guide, a study of the human brain has revealed.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool  found the prose of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and the like had a beneficial  effect on the mind, providing a 'rocket-boost' to morale by catching the  reader's attention and triggering moments of self-reflection.

Using scanners, they monitored the brain  activity of volunteers as they read pieces of classical English literature both  in their original form and in a more dumbed-down, modern  translation.

Portrait of William Shakespeare, English poet and playwright. C8MH38 William Shakespeare.
Ted Hughes, (Edward Hughes) British Author and Poet Laureate on Television programme THE ENGLISH PROGRAMME Died 10/98

Scientists in Liverpool have found reading the works of  Shakespeare (left) and poet Ted Hughes (right) can boost the brain and trigger  further reading and moments of self-reflection, while giving a boost to  morale

And, according to the Sunday Telegraph, the  experiment showed the more 'challenging' prose and poetry set off far more  electrical activity in the brain than the pedestrian versions.

The academics were able to study the brain  activity as readers responded to each word, and noticed how it 'lit up' as they  encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence  structure.

This reaction of the mind lasted longer than  the initial electrical spark, shifting the brain to a higher gear and  encouraging further reading.


The research also found poetry, in  particular, increased activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area  concerned with 'autobiographical memory', which helped the reader to reflect on  and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they had read. The  academics said this meant the classics were more useful than self-help  books.

Philip Davis, an English professor who 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, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the  young and the staid alike.'

The brain responses of 30 volunteers was  monitored in the first part of the research as they read Shakespeare in its  original and 'modern' form.

In one example, volunteers read a line from  King Lear, 'A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded', before  reading the simpler. 'A father and a gracious aged man: him you have  enraged'.

A portrait of Charles Dickens at the age of 47, by William Powell Frith in 1859. Scientists will use his work in their studies of the human brain

A portrait of Charles Dickens at the age of 47, by  William Powell Frith in 1859. Scientists will use his work in their studies of  the human brain

Shakespeare's use of the adjective 'mad' as a  verb caused a higher level of brain activity than the straightforward prose.

The study went on to test how long the effect  lasted.

It found the 'peak' triggered by the  unfamiliar word was sustained into the following phrases, suggesting the  striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind primed for more  attention.

In the second phase of the study, the  academics explored the extent to which poetry can provide therapeutic  benefits.

The next phase of the research is looking at  the extent to which poetry can affect psychology and provide therapeutic  benefit. using the work of, among others, including Wordsworth, Henry Vaughan,  John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.

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."

Four 'translated' lines were also provided,  including, '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.

Activity is this area of the brain suggest  the poetry triggers 'reappraisal mechanisms', causing the reader to reflect and  rethink their own experiences.

'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 Prof Davis, who will present the findings at the North  of England education conference in Sheffield this 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.'

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have found reading the likes of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens could have a beneficial effect on morale

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have found  reading the likes of Shakespeare and Charles Dickens could have a beneficial  effect on morale

Prof Davis hopes to scan the brains of  volunteers reading Charles Dickens to test if revisions the writer made to his  prose cause greater brain activity than the original text.

He is also working with the charity The  Reader Organisation to establish reading aloud groups in drop-in centres, care  homes, libraries, schools and mother and toddler groups

(Daily Mail UK - 13 Jan 2013)

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