According to a Jenkins Group survey, 42% of American college graduates will never read another book – and the ones who are reading books, choose bestsellers from the last 10 years along with non-fiction related to their work. This is not to say the rest of the population aren’t reading – it’s that they’ve shifted their preferences to blogs and online articles.
Yet British researchers recently demonstrated that reading Shakespeare and other classics is a brain booster. A big brain booster.
Scientists at Liverpool University, led by Professor Philip Davis, monitored the brain activity of people reading works by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, T.S Eliot and other great writers of English literature known to torment high school students.
The original texts were then converted into more straightforward modern language and the readers’ brains were scanned again. When the language was simplified, there was much less electrical activity in the brain. In contrast, unusual words and complicated sentence structures prompted better concentration and stimulated more signalling and creation of new connections between brain cells.
Professor Davis explained that elegant and challenging literature shifts mental pathways and promotes new circuits within the brain and therefore new thoughts. The more sophisticated the language in both poetry and prose, the greater the brain-boosting effect.
Poetry, in particular, stimulates activity in the right hemisphere, and encourages self-reflection, creativity and imagination. Professor Davis described poetry as “a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive.” This means that we appraise our own experiences in light of what we’ve read and it enables us to come up with answers to our own problems. Shakespeare’s volumes need to be moved to the self-help section of the bookshop.
The other brain-boosting benefits of reading the classics include expanding our vocabulary, refining our own oral and written expression and giving us a deeper appreciation of the human condition.
The larger our vocabulary, the sharper our thinking and the more clearly and precisely we’re able to express ourselves. Research has shown that people who use a wider range of words are not only perceived as more intelligent, they are better able to view a situation from different perspectives and more likely to come up with alternative approaches and effective solutions.
Reading the work of great minds improves our own minds because we unconsciously absorb their way of thinking, not only their content and ideas. Ironic as it seems, reading the classics of the past is a great way of coming up with fresh and new perspectives about the present. Add this to the fact that you’ll be among a rare handful of individuals who is actually reading classical literature, and you’ll stand out in any situation as being a deep, innovative and original thinker.