Put down those self-help books, ditch the trashy novels and read the greatest writers in the English language if you need a lift. The works of Shakespeare and Wordsworth are "rocket-boosters" to the brain and better therapy than self-improvement guides, researchers have discovered.
Academics at Liverpool University found that reading the works of the Bard and other classical writers had a beneficial effect on the mind, 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 by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, TS 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 readers responded to each word and noticed how it "lit up" as they encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure. This "lighting up" 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 that poetry, in particular, increased 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 had 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 unfamiliar words.
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 caused 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 into the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind "primed for more attention".
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, 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: "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 suggests that 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."
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.