The Power of Poetry: How Serious Literature Can Boost the Brain

The Reader Organisation’s research partners, Professor Philip Davis and his team at CRILS (Centre for Research into Reading, Information and Linguistic Systems at the University of Liverpool), have used brain scans to demonstrate that challenging literature “shifts mental pathways” and prompts new thoughts in readers.

Working with the university’s magnetic resonance centre, the researchers used scanners to monitor the brain activity of volunteers as they read works by writers such as Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Eliot. They then “translated” the text into more straightforward, modern language and repeated the test. The scans showed that the original “challenging” literature created much greater electrical activity in the brain, as well as interconnections between the different hemispheres.

Scans of brain activity show intense electrical activity when reading challenging literature
Scans of brain activity show intense electrical activity when reading challenging literature
Brain scans show minimal activity when reading the "translated" versions
Brain scans show minimal activity when reading the “translated” versions

Professor Philip Davis, who is due to present his findings at the North of England Education Conference in Sheffield this Thursday, stated:

Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain.

The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.”

For example, readers were given four lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ in both the original and translated versions:

She lived unknown and few could know, when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me.

She lived a lonely life in the country, and nobody seems to know or care, but now she is dead, and I feel her loss.

The first version caused both hemispheres of the brain to light up, the left, which relates to language, but also the right, which relates to memory and emotion. This suggests that the readers were assessing the literature by reflecting on their own experiences, creating autobiographical meaning from the complex, but not necessarily complicated, language. As such, it is possible to suggest that great literature may have real therapeutic value, as Professor Davis explained:

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.

Professor Davis appeared live on the BBC World Service’s Newshour yesterday to explain more about the research, which was extensively reported on in the Telegraph. You can listen again to his interview here (approx 19mins) and read the full Telegraph article here, along with an editorial praising challenging literature.

Here at The Reader Organisation, our Get Into Reading groups take place in a range of settings, including mental healthcare, the criminal justice system, and  in the community. We have long been aware that reading great literature, and sharing the thoughts and feelings this prompts, can improve wellbeing, self-confidence and empathy. We have been working with CRILS on establishing solid research into these benefits; some of their earlier studies on dementia and depression can be read on the Research pages of our website.

Professor Davis and his team now plan to work with psychologists to further their research into poetry’s therapeutic uses.


10 thoughts on “The Power of Poetry: How Serious Literature Can Boost the Brain”

  1. The young and the staid alike? Rocket boost on immediately for any who assume ‘young’ is a mere chronological state and ‘staid’ its matching ‘elderly ideal’.

  2. Has the university considered the further implications that un worded musical phrasing may have a similar therapeutic effect as that studied by Professor Philip Davis? As musicians are known to benefit from sustained development through the learning of instrumental playing.

    Also there may be therapeutic opportunities for dyslexics etc. Please check my Blog for more info. Will be posting later today.

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