Keep your brain fit with Shakespeare!

Researchers have revealed that Shakespeare’s work excites the brain in a way that keeps it “fit”.

Finally, scientific proof of the axiom that English teachers the world over have been punting for centuries — reading Shakespeare is good for you. Well, to be more specific, it is good for your brain, reports Times Online.

Research into the prevention of dementia at the University of Liverpool has found that reading lines from Shakespeare and other great writers such as Chaucer and Wordsworth, causes an increase in electrical activity in the brain. The reason for this, reports CBC News, seems to be a linguistic technique known as a ‘functional shift’, which is basically the uncustomary use of a word — a noun used as a verb for example.

Professor Philip Davis, from the university’s English department, explains this phenomenon: “By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity — a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

Fellow researcher, Professor Neil Roberts from the university’s Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Centre was quoted on Times Online as explaining the shifts in the brain in the following way: “When the word changes the grammar of the sentence, brain readings suddenly peak. The brain is forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of this unusual word.”

The researchers measured the brain activity by attaching electrodes (and an electroencephalogram) to the heads of 20 participants while they read specific lines from Shakespeare.

Normally, when someone reads a sentence that doesn’t make sense, this lack of comprehension manifests itself as negative wave modulation. However, when the participants hit the functional shift in the sentence, this showed up as positive re-evaluation of the word.

According to CBC News, the researchers are still trying to establish which areas of the brain are affected by the spike in activity.

So, there is a reason to read Shakespeare. But now students can ask a slightly more complicated question: Was Shakespeare actually a great writer, or are people just tricked into thinking his work is good because of increased activity in the brain?

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