Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | This Is Your Brain On Shakespeare

Well, it wasn't shortly after posting my latest column about the classics that a couple of links showed up on my Facebook timeline informing me that researchers at Liverpool University have found that reading classic authors, such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth, boosts brain activity. Apparently, literature has the power “to shape mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and staid alike.”

How Reading Classics Embiggens Your Mind

Researchers presented test subjects with the original works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Eliot and then presented simplified versions of each text. For example, Wordsworth's:
She lived unknown and few could know
  when Lucy ceased to be.
But she is in her grave and O!
  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.
Limited edition, glasses sold separately.
The study showed that reading the first passage caused not only the linguistic centers of the brain, but also the emotional, autobiographical and reflective areas of the brain to fire, as if the reader were actually being plunged into the deep emotional turmoil the poet felt at the loss of his dear Lucy! The second, while failing to produce the internal hemorrhaging one might expect at the sight of such drivel, still managed to spectacularly under perform the original text.

In short, science is validating what scholars have already said about how we think. Classic texts, packed with the complexities of human nature, cast into meter and rhyme, and laced with witty banter expand the mind by causing it to think in different ways, overcome obstacles, reconcile new information with prior knowledge, and unite that knowledge into a single mental picture of reality.

The problem is that science can only tell us that the mind is on the move, it can't tell us what direction its going. Our imagination has been captured, but there's no way to tell whether it is enthralled with eternal moral truths, or whether it has become what T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk called “the diabolic imagination.” Conceptually, a steady diet of the most pernicious literature of Western Civilization can also capture the mind to create a person of devilish brilliance.

But that's hardly the problem with modern American culture. Instead, the modern American has more or less determined that discerning between the moral and diabolic is too difficult, and that he'd rather just mindlessly imbibe whatever pre-packaged philosophy his culture has to offer. As Zachary Pletan said in a comment on my last blog:
It's easier to read John Grisham than John Bunyan. David Baldacci than David Copperfield. Jaws than Moby-Dick. The Da Vinci Code than Paradise Lost. Twilight than Romeo and Juliet. The Lord of the Rings—itself almost or already a classic—than Beowulf.
In short, Americans are LAZY. We want the cookie jar on the bottom shelf, so that we don't have to reach for it. The problem is that the bottom-shelf cookies are usually stale, old and flavorless, more like a peanut-butter than your grandma's fresh-baked chocolate chip. You're not going to get the intricacies of a delicately seasoned filet mignon if you're chowing down on McDonalds every day.

The solution, though, is quite simple: give those mental muscles a workout! Read difficult books. Expand your mind. And since this column started out with Shakespeare to begin with, I'll point you towards one of my favorite passages from the Bard himself: the St. Crispin's Day Speech from Henry V. Also, check out the Generation Joshua book club, we often have classic works of literature in there. And, as always, leave me a comment.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. It's good to make our minds think, yet many would rather have others think for them. Laziness is a part of our fallen nature, but we have to struggle to overcome it.
    I must say that the GenJ book club was one of the best things I ever did! I did it for 3 or more years and most of the books we read were ones I never would of picked up on my own. Even though I didn't always get as much out of the books as someone older would have, it encouraged me to think, and not give up even though the text may be difficult to read. Now today, there are days where I think it might be fun to pick up my copy of Beowulf and read through it again!

  2. Does reading a Nick Barden post count as a mental workout? Speaking of which...I can't even remember the last time I took the time to read a book that wasn't a textbook or related to science (Sherlock Holmes being the exception). I guess I'd be the one who reaches for the cookie jar on the bottom shelf, mainly because I find the cookies on the top shelf to be the exact same.

    1. I legitimately feel smarter after reading a Nick Barden post, yes.

      He writes the way he reads ;) The rest of us can't write well because we don't read well.

    2. I write obnoxiously, does that mean I read obnoxious things?

  3. WHAT is wrong with peanut butter cookies, I might ask?

    Oh wait... not the point of the article. Right. So. Glad to pass along something that could inspire further conversation. I like that you take it beyond the scientific into the realm of what is good.

    "Our imagination has been captured, but there's no way to tell whether it is enthralled with eternal moral truths, or whether it has become what T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk called “the diabolic imagination.”"

    Love it. :)

  4. Okay _one_ question.. How do classics compare books? And other mentally-challenging non-narratives?

    1. Hey KatieLeah,

      Well, there's a variety of theology books, a number of which would be considered "classics" (though not literary). Augustine's City of God, Luther's On Christian Liberty and Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion are both classics of Christian theology (and, of course, I've got to put a plug in for Arminius). The power of non-narrative works is usually found in the depth of ideas being communicated, not necessarily the style (though if you want to read a work of theology that has brilliant style, check out Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling). Reading non-narratives still gives the mind a workout, though in different ways. It's like exercising different muscle groups.

      You still have to make the distinction between good and bad non-narrative works. Augustine's Confessions and Grudem's Systematic Theology are going to stretch your mind much more than, say, Bell's Love Wins (which may be worth reading due to contemporary relevance, but the slippery rhetoric and disjointed syntax mostly just results in a desire to throw the book against the wall).

      Does that help?

    2. Over the last couple years I've found I enjoy good nonfic just as much and often more than novels. As Nick said, it exercises different mental "muscles." (Though I've found plenty where the style was just as stimulating, most of them old of course. A lot of those *were* history books though, so I guess a large portion of them were still narratives, but not all of them.)

      I just bought Fear and Trembling- glad to know it'll at least be enjoyable.

      Nick, I can't believe you didn't recommend C.S. Lewis's nonfiction here. =P
      ...what did you think of Purpose Driven Life? (I saw it was in your book collection)

  5. Hey guys, thanks for all of the comments!

    Zachary: Thanks!

    TreasureSeeker: Lucas does a really good job with the book club. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, I added a link to the end of the post.

    A Condescending Man: I try. :P Well, if you haven't reached for the cookies on the top shelf, then how would you know?

    In Fullness of Grace: Other than the fact that they're usually dry and dusty and I may have overdosed on peanut butter in my childhood, nothing. I'm really hoping to talk about Kirk's concept of the moral, idyllic and diabolic imagination in a later column. Stay tuned.

    KatieLeah, you get your own comment, just give me a bit.

  6. Nick~

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this post- I really enjoyed it. It was also, weirdly, timely for me- I read it right after getting home from the library where I was hoping to find a "revised, today's english" translation of John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress". I've tried (vainly) to read it before, but I had a hard time "getting into it" and I thought maybe an easier translation would help me- well, your post made me realize I am getting lazy about reading- so I will be reading the "orginal" version of "Pilgrim's Progress", even if I need a dictionary beside me :)

    And yes- if at all possible- join the GenJ book club. You won't regret it.

    God bless and thanks again Nick!

    1. We have a host of study materials for Pilgrim's Progress...some of which might be electronically transferable if you're interested. I didn't care much for the book itself but we've went through it many times and the things we used with it made it more meaningful for me.

      Pilgrim's Progress was alright, but I like Bunyan's "Holy War" much better- if you should happen to pick that up and would like to discuss it with someone I'm writing study questions for it and would love to have someone to bounce them off of. =) I think it would be enjoyable for both of us.

    2. Hi Tabby-
      Thanks for this comment.
      I PMed you via GenJ.