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 , 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 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.
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.      –TG