Self-Help vs. Shakespeare: Which Is Better Therapy?

Reading challenging passages of old-fashioned literature and poetry “light up” your brain more than reading the same concepts translated into simpler prose, British researchers announced this week. The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, translates this research into the following headline: “How reading Shakespeare and Wordsworth offer better therapy than self-help books.”

OK, maybe I’ve dulled my brain consuming too much easy-to-read prose over the years. Or maybe the trashy romance novels I can now mainline on my Kindle aren’t helping my cerebral cortex. But this smacks of the media taking good research and mauling it into junk science.

The Telegraph reports:

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, T.S. 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.

Translation (joke intended): When you read stuff that’s hard to understand, your brain lights up in a different way and it makes you think about things a bit more. That makes a lot of sense.

But having parts of your brain light up does not equate to understanding, being able to act on ideas or being inspired to try something new. It just means your brain had to work a bit harder.

I’ve always believed that the mark of an intelligent person is the ability to explain something in simple terms. People should read challenging literature (which is challenging often because it was written in language from a different era, not because it was intentionally crafted to be obtuse) and if the spirit moves them, the stories and lessons from poetry and literature can be springboards for making changes in their own lives.

But I will not be sending my friend who’s contemplating a divorce to T.S. Eliot’s oeuvre. Nor will I encourage a student suffering from testing anxiety to read Shakespeare to find her inner calm. Sometimes we need to be lifted up by literature, and other times we need a swift (and easily understandable) kick in the ass from self-help.

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One response to “Self-Help vs. Shakespeare: Which Is Better Therapy?

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