Verse broadens the mind, scientists find

Verse broadens the mind, scientists find


IF LITERATURE is food for the
 mind, then a poem is a banquet, according to research by Scottish scientists
 which shows poetry is better for the brain than prose.

Psychologists at Dundee
and St Andrews universities claim the work of poets such as Lord
Byron exercise the mind more than a novel by Jane Austen. By monitoring the way
different forms of text are read, they found poetry generated far more eye
 movement which is associated with deeper thought.

Subjects were found to read
 poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with 
prose. Preliminary studies using brain-imaging technology also showed greater
 levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Dr
Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a member of the research group, believes poetry 
may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop
 during childhood. She claims the intense imagery woven through poems, and 
techniques used by poets to unsettle their readers, force them to think more
 carefully about each line. “There seems to be an almost immediate
 recognition that this is a different sort of language that needs to be 
approached in a way that will be more attentive to the density of words in
 poetry,” she said. “It may be because readers are trying to hear the 
words or recreate the imaginary event the poet has provided a script for.
” Also, children seem to be born with a love of rhyme and rhythm. Then
 something happens and by the time we see them in the first year at university
 many of them are almost frightened of poetry and clamouring to study the
 contemporary novel.”

To study readers’ reactions,
 the research group focused an infrared beam on the pupils of their eyes to
 detect minute movements as they read.

They found poetry produced 
all the standard psychological indications associated with intellectual
 difficulty, such as slow deliberate movement, re-reading sections and long
 pauses. Even when they used identical content but displayed it in both a poem
 format and a prose format, they discovered readers found the poem form the more
 difficult to understand. Stabler said: “When readers decide that something
 is a poem, they read in a different way. As literary critics we would like to 
think that this is a more thoughtful way, more receptive to the text’s richness
 and complexity, but in psychological terms it is the same sort of reading
 produced by a dyslexic reader who finds reading difficult. “We focused on
 poetry that disturbs or unsettles readers like the work of Lord Byron. “We
 found that his stanza form in Don Juan does make subjects read more quickly
 than readers focusing on the rhymes of an elegy in a similar metre.”

Stabler believes those
 reading other poets, such as Robert Burns, would show similar increases in
 brain activity.

The group hopes to use
 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to watch how the brain reacts as people 
listen to poetry and prose. Early results suggest a larger area of the brain
 lights up in the scans upon hearing poetry by Byron than prose by Austen. The 
research has profound implications for the way English literature is taught in
 schools, and Stabler believes they should consider placing greater emphasis on 
teaching youngsters poetry.

Both rhythm and rhyme have been found to be
 intricately linked with making and recalling memories. Stabler asked: “If 
poetry helps to stir memory, might it be useful in the treatment of age-related
 or injury related memory problems?” Dr Martin Fischer, an experimental
 psychologist at Dundee University involved in the project, claims the findings could 
also form the basis for producing new techniques for helping dyslexic children.
 He said: “It certainly has implications for children who have certain
 difficulties, like in dyslexia where a rhyming deficiency could be compensated
 for by exposing them to more poetry.” Members of the literary world have
 welcomed the research and insist it underlines the importance poetry has played 
in literature.

Bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin said too many people felt
 intimidated by poetry without realising it was designed to be challenging. He
 said: “Novels first began as a form of poetry where story telling was used
 to pass tales from one generation to the next. This was done with rhythm and
 rhyme as it made the stories easier to remember. “We are even seeing that
 today with song lyrics – the only way rap artists can remember all those lyrics
 is because they have rhythm and rhyme. “Not many people pick up books of 
poetry anymore to read. You have to wonder if people find them too hard. “
Edwin Morgan, the nation’s official Makar, the Scottish equivalent of the poet
 laureate, added: “Writing poetry is almost a physical experience as well
 as mental. Children are rarely worried about extracting too much meaning from
 poems, but they seem to get a much deeper experience from it.”