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In which Shakespeare is shown to have positive effects on brain activity


This is your brain on Shakespeare.

This article in UK’s The Telegraph brings together two of my ongoing interests, literature and neuroscience.  (Neuroscience? you ask.  Yes, I’ve always had a thing for learning about the biological brain.  I think I’ll post more about that later.)

In it, cognitive neuroscientists in Liverpool measure brain activity while processing both “great” texts and on more pedestrian paraphrases of the same ideas.  No big surprise there, I don’t think: even the most surly student in the back of the room will admit that part of why Shakespeare is hard is that reading it gives the brain a workout…heavy lifting and all.

But I find myself most intrigued by why and how that brain activity leaps up in the presence of richer language, because it’s not just that figuring out the syntax makes the language processing more effort intensive.  Nope.  It’s both sides of the brain:

Intense activity is this area of the brain suggests that the poetry triggers “reappraisal mechanisms” causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences in light of what they read.

“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,” said Professor Davis, who will present the findings at the North of England education conference in Sheffield next week.

“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.”

On the one hand, I find this research exciting if not surprising, for the evidence that suggests that there is a high cognitive, educational value for reading literary language.  I believe that is true, and I will happily marshal that evidence when defending the humanities around the academy.  But I hesitate at adding “the emotional and the biographical” to the cognitive, if only because those elements are frequently derided a not being the proper objects of scholarship.

Here’s the question: when we cite “increased brain activity” as a value for studying the humanities, do we undercut ourselves by noting that the increased brain activity is due in some measure to an emotional or identificatory response, rather than a purely cognitive one?  Or do we acknowledge the necessary presence of the emotional and the biographical as components of learning that has implications beyond the simple retention of information?

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