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