Boost your brain with the classics

Contributed by: Elena Oderstone
Themes: Classic Literature, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot
Categories: Article

Issued on 14th September, 2017, the newly minted £10 note depicting Jane Austen, re-iterates her words that ‘… there is no enjoyment like reading!’

However, in reality we stand witness to becoming part of a generation where the manner in which we use present technology is silencing the art of the spoken and written word.

The alarm was raised in a 2013 OECD Literacy and Numeracy Study which revealed American and English adults as being some of the least literate within the world’s developed countries(1).

With this extremely disturbing piece of news, and considering the multi-millions invested in our education systems over recent years, we can only come to the worrying conclusion that our modern education systems have produced millions of people who are able to read, but who have lost the appetite for reading.

There is no doubt that the technological revolution we are witnessing today, has changed our lives irrevocably, taking us to new horizons and with opportunities which seem boundless for future generations.  As we strive to embrace all this change, however, it is also becoming very apparent that use of the huge array of gadgets, gizmos, apps, which are on offer are starting to truncate our language and, in turn, truncating our lives.

There is a danger that we are losing the art of true communication, failing to see or feel the joy in all that surrounds us.  The constant barrage of information being fed to us and manipulating our thought is resulting in our being the passive onlookers of life, disconnecting us with our true emotions.  We are losing sight of our hopes and dreams in our quest to attain the attainable.  This in turn has led to depression, with the resulting boom in self-help books and programmes for self-improvement.  However, deep within us, we are searching for a deeper meaning.

Researchers are discovering that the excessive use of Apps and social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, now so favoured by the younger generation, is creating an inability and a difficulty within the brains of our young to focus and set priorities clearly. A short attention span is detrimental to learning, impeding academic efforts. In some classrooms, teachers now feel the need for students to read out aloud as they lack the necessary attention span to read assignments on their own (2).  A UK study found that children with the poorest grades at school were the ones who spent the most time on social networking (3).  Numerous studies have found that illiteracy is a form of disempowerment, whilst being literate has the ability to empower and even create opportunities that can transform lives (4).

What would Jane Austen say if she were to step into our world today?  With each generation, our language gradually evolves and the English we know today, sounds very different to that of Austen’s time.  In recent years, the use of homophones for texting and sometimes speaking, has become prevalent with words such as ‘great’ omitting non-essential letters to become gr8, or the initials LOL to mean ‘laugh out loud’.  These adaptations of language have in turn become detrimental to the spoken and written word. A 2012 study published in New Media & Society found a decline in grammar scores among middle school students based on the number of adaptations in their text messages (5).

Jane Austen would be rather shocked to discover how much the English language has changed in 2017.  It is not technology itself that should be blamed, however. It is the way we use it. Technology has helped the world to become more connected, and there are likely many undiscovered possibilities for its use that can enhance our language, heritage and culture, when used the right way.

Obviously modern technology is here to stay, but there is also a way to boost brain power, improve attention span and memory and expand our intelligence, resulting in greater freedom and success.

A Liverpool University study revealed that reading classical literature such as the works of Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot can help accomplish this. Their research discovered that reading poetry particularly increases activity in the brain’s right hemisphere, an area connected with ‘autobiographical memory.’ The classics were found to be much more useful than self-help books. Professor Philip Davis, Institute of Phycology, Health and Society at University of Liverpool, who was a part of the study, revealed that ‘serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain.’

Research from Stanford University, by Professor Joshua Landy, outlined in his 2012 book “How to Do Things with Fictions”, illustrated that reading literary works by authors like Samuel Beckett and Geoffrey Chaucer are like ‘bringing your brain to the gym.’ Landy says that it can help us to better handle morally complex situations (6).

A study recently published in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, found that scientist, when using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, could literally see the brain ‘lighting up’ when volunteers read a favourite passage of poetry. The areas of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly. This is said to have indicated that it is a form of recollection, known to help improve the memory (7).

Poetry reading also offers healing powers that have long been recognised by traditional medicine and studies have shown that poetry reading can enhance professional and personal development. In the business world, it can help leaders to turn chaos into something that is meaningful, improving the ability to better conceptualise a problem and communicate it. It can help develop one’s creativity and even provide a significant advantage over colleagues who may not have such a lively imagination (8).

Just as poetic words can help to create love and harmony and provide more meaning to our lives, so too they have the ability to relieve stress. Did you ever imagine that reading poems and classic literature could have so much power to transform our lives for the better? A prescription of reading poetry and the classics may be the better bargain, rather than spending money on medicines purported to reduce stress.

If you have not taken the time to read a poem or picked up a classic like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” since you were forced to do so in a classroom, you may well have the mistaken belief that reading these things is a chore. But in all likelihood, you will quickly realise you were mistaken!

The classics are cool! They have a special feel, an amazing smell that you just don’t get from sitting in front of a computer screen!  Many of the stories are still highly relevant today but have an incredible depth that is rarely found in more modern novels – complex characters, and what makes them tick, the romance of another time. There are just so many reasons to love them.

Classic literature is like DNA. It is the basic building block of all creative work, providing timeless themes and characters, as well as inspiration for every generation. In it, we find enlightenment, enchantment, empowerment, energy, emotion, effusion, empathy, embodiment, excitement, escapism, education, epiphany, and even enrapture. It is from here that mankind can truly lay claim to rule the world. As T.S. Eliot once said, ‘Genuine poetry can communicate even before it’s understood,’ and E.M. Forster writes, ‘What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote.’

Reading classic literature may help you to discover the joy of reading again – while also expanding your mind and helping you to accomplish things you may not have even thought were possible. Don’t let that stream carry you wherever it happens to lead – grab those paddles and take control of your life, one page at a time.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/08/us/us-adults-fare-poorly-in-a-study-of-skills.html?_r=1&
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/technology/21brain.html?pagewanted=all
  3. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8142721/Social-networking-teachers-blame-Facebook-and-Twitter-for-pupils-poor-grades.html
  4. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001529/152921e.pdf
  5. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120726122244.htm
  6. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/july/fiction-boost-brain-070312.html
  7. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131009125959.htm
  8. http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/11/the-benefits-of-poetry-for-pro/

Elena Oderstone is an entrepreneur, published author and a public speaker, a Patron of The Royal Society of Literature, Member of the Society of Authors in the UK and the leader of the project ‘Cool Classics‘.