New research from Liverpool University shows that Shakespeare (and other classical writers) can stimulate the brain. For me, what stood out from earlier studies, was the attention to the duration of the phenomenon:
The study went on to test how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention”.
This means that if you’re experiencing a work by Shakespeare, who is constantly throwing these poetic curve balls, you can sustain the brain boost over long periods of time. I’ve certainly experienced this sensation many times. I’ll basically go to see any Shakespeare play, regardless of the venue, just so I can hear these words spoken to me. I participate in a monthly Shakespeare reading group, and feel the effect even more profoundly when I am the one reading the words.
Even seeing the text written can do the job, though I often pause a lot when reading and so the pace isn’t necessarily the same. But the research shows an increase in reflection as well, so perhaps that’s a different manifestation of the effect. I subscribe to a Twitter feed that only tweets the plays themselves, one line every ten minutes like clockwork. Every now and then I’ll hit a familiar line and feel the brain bolt. I don’t know why that should be, but I get my shot to the brain all the same.
If I’m doing something that requires no mental attention, I’ll listen to an audio lecture. If I’m doing something that requires my full attention, I’ll listen to music. But if I’m doing something tedious that needs some focus but provides no mental stimulation, I’ll listen to Shakespeare. I’ll typically choose an audio production that I’ve listened to many times before, so I don’t need to be an engaged audience member the whole time. But I find that I can keep my conscious mind engaged on the task much more easily if my subconscious mind is swept away on a wave of poetic bliss. And when a line or two does drift into my awareness, I know the play well enough that I can enjoy it out of context, much like I do the Twitter feed. I get the hit without having to break my stride.
This is your brain on Shakespeare. Any questions?