The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 17.1097 Tuesday, 19 December 2006
Date: Sunday, 17 Dec 2006 22:11:35 -0800
Subject: Shakespeare Actually Good for the Brain
The music of Shakespeare is food for thought
By Richard Gray, Science Correspondent
Telegraph, December 17, 2006
Wrestling with Shakespeare is good for the brain. Scientists have shown
that reading the Bard and other classical writers has beneficial effects
on the mind.
They say that their research provides valuable lessons for the education
system and for older people who want to keep their minds active.
Works from Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth and D H Lawrence challenge
readers because of their unusual words, tricky sentence structure and the
repetition of phrases.
English professors at Liverpool University who teamed up with
neuroscientists armed with brain-imaging equipment found that this
challenge causes the brain to light up with electrical activity. Professor
Philip Davis, who led the study at the university's department of English,
said: "The brain appears to become baffled by something unexpected in the
text that jolts it into a higher level of thinking.
"It suggests that literature is not just some stylish add-on but is
important to encourage more lateral thinking and learning.
"The study and the enjoyment of classical literature should become
important again and not just a specialist activity."
Prof Davis, whose book on his research, Shakespeare Thinking, is to be
published next month, believes children should be encouraged to read more
classic literature to help them with their studies.
An official report by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority last
year stated that schools were focusing too much on short stories and
narrowing pupils' experience of fiction written before 1900.
Prof Davis also claims that it could provide a useful tool for developing
treatments for elderly patients that will keep their minds agile.
He said: "We have an outreach programme where students read to elderly
people and we have noticed powerful effects of literature in them. It
helped them remember things they had long forgotten.
"There has been an over-dominance of tidy and pedestrian writing for some
time now. I hope our findings persuade both children and adults to look at
such works in a new light rather than leaving them unread on bookshelves."
The researchers monitored the brain activity of 30 volunteers as they read
passages of ordinary text compared with examples of classic literature.
While reading plain, plodding text, the volunteers displayed normal levels
of electrical activity in their brains.
When they read Shakespeare, however, the levels of activity jumped because
of his unusual use of words. In one example from Othello, Shakespeare
replaces the verb to kiss with a noun. It reads: "To lip a wanton woman."
The researchers were able accurately to identify exactly which words
caused the response by showing a short piece at a time.
By picking obscure passages they were also able to rule out the
possibility that people in the tests were simply recognising the text as
They were also able to identify that the Shakespeare sparked activity
across a far wider area of the brain than "plain" text, with the greatest
concentration in a key area associated with language in the temporal lobe
known as the Sylvian Fissure.
The researchers claim that techniques such as unusual sentence structure
can also stimulate the brain. In the poem Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer
uses parenthesis to throw the reader off. He says: "Men say - not I - that
she gave him his heart."
Prof Neil Roberts, the imaging expert involved in the study, said: "The
jump in activity is caused by the brain re-evaluating what it is reading
and trying to interpret it.
"With a Shakespearean sentence the brain sees it as grammatically
difficult but tolerates it as making sense. It perhaps acts as a cue to
the brain that there is something there that has more than one meaning."
A S Byatt, the Booker Prize-winning author and an enthusiast of classic
literature, said: "Shakespeare does much more complicated things with the
English language than anybody else. His sentences give you an intense
linguistic pleasure that no one else gives you.
"As a writer you can recognise whether the shape of a word works, but it
is something you have to work extremely hard at."
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