Oh, The Humanities!


New research shows that reading difficult prose and poetry “lights up” the brain more than reading dumbed-down versions of the same text. Specifically, researchers gave subjects passages by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot (among others). The readers’ brains were then monitored as they read, and the results seem to be two-fold.

First, there was more electrical activity in the brain while subjects read the difficult (original) passages. Second, when subjects read poetry, regions in the brain associated with memory and self-reflection became active.

“The [original] 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.”

The study’s authors suggest that this pattern of brain activity indicates a deeper engagement with the text that leads to meaningful self reflection. Philip Davis, an English professor who was part of the research team, said this:

“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[…]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.”

As a longtime Shakespeare disciple, I’m excited to see scientific confirmation of what his fans have known for centuries: Shakespeare really does put the ‘human’ in ‘humanities.’

Interestingly, this comes at a time when recent Common Core guidelines are being interpreted as calling for fiction and poetry to be gradually tapered from classroom instruction in order to make room for “harder” reading, such as technical manuals and non-fiction writing. Others say teachers are misinterpreting the guidelines and that Shakespeare still should be taught.

States are just beginning the long journey to the Common Core, so time will tell what it will ultimately look like. Let’s just hope that by the time it’s all sorted out, when we ask a student what he’s reading, rather than answering “Words, words, words,” he’ll say “How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

Link to another news story about the study, with a slightly different angle.
Link to Science Daily report on the study.
Link to LA Times editorial about the implications of Common Core.


One thought on “Oh, The Humanities!

  1. Interesting. I have long known that listening to classical music – in particular, Mozart – has a different chemical effect on the brain than does listening to the more modern alternatives. Experiments were done in Bulgaria, where students were taught French while listening to Mozart, Pop, and silence. Of the three, the students exposed to the Mozart learned the language quicker and retained their knowledge longer. I suspect the same sort of thing to be true with classical literature. I know that the books that have impacted me the most, have all been classics. Moby Dick, Les Miserables, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, to name a few.

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