Reading the works of the greatest writers in the English language can boost morale and provide better therapy than a self-help guide, a study of the human brain has revealed.
Researchers at the University of Liverpool found the prose of Shakespeare and Wordsworth and the like had a beneficial effect on the mind, providing a 'rocket-boost' to morale by catching the reader's attention and triggering moments of self-reflection.
Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read pieces of classical English literature both in their original form and in a more dumbed-down, modern translation.
And, according to the Sunday Telegraph, the experiment showed the more 'challenging' prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the pedestrian versions.
The academics were able to study the brain activity as readers responded to each word, and noticed how it 'lit up' as they encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.
This reaction of the mind lasted longer than the initial electrical spark, shifting the brain to a higher gear and encouraging further reading.
The research also found poetry, in particular, increased activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with 'autobiographical memory', which helped the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they had read. The academics said this meant the classics were more useful than self-help books.
Philip Davis, an English professor who worked on the study with the university's magnetic resonance centre, said: 'Serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain.
'The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections in the young and the staid alike.'
The brain responses of 30 volunteers was monitored in the first part of the research as they read Shakespeare in its original and 'modern' form.
In one example, volunteers read a line from King Lear, 'A father and a gracious aged man: him have you madded', before reading the simpler. 'A father and a gracious aged man: him you have enraged'.
Shakespeare's use of the adjective 'mad' as a verb caused a higher level of brain activity than the straightforward prose.
The study went on to test how long the effect lasted.
It found the 'peak' triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained into the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind primed for more attention.
In the second phase of the study, the academics explored the extent to which poetry can provide therapeutic benefits.
The next phase of the research is looking at the extent to which poetry can affect psychology and provide therapeutic benefit. using the work of, among others, including Wordsworth, Henry Vaughan, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes.
Volunteers' brains were scanned while reading four lines by Wordsworth: "She lived unknown and few could know, when Lucy ceased to be. But she is in her grave and oh, the difference to me."
Four 'translated' lines were also provided, including, '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'.
The first version caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.
Activity is this area of the brain suggest the poetry triggers 'reappraisal mechanisms', causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences.
'Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive,' said Prof Davis, who will present the findings at the North of England education conference in Sheffield this week.
'This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional
Prof Davis hopes to scan the brains of volunteers reading Charles Dickens to test if revisions the writer made to his prose cause greater brain activity than the original text.
He is also working with the charity The Reader Organisation to establish reading aloud groups in drop-in centres, care homes, libraries, schools and mother and toddler groups.