Monday, January 21, 2013

Science Proves that Primary Sources are Better

Courses in the Department of History and Political Science rely as much as possible on primary sources. We'd rather have you read Lincoln's Second Inaugural address, or Galileo's letter to the Grand Duchess Christina than summaries of them. The idea is to have direct access to the writings and ideas that made history and for students to learn how to understand, evaluate, and use those documents for themselves. 

But now there is scientific evidence that it is actually better for you to read primary sources like Shakespeare than to read the same ideas put into simplified "modern" language - as is usually done in textbooks and in study guides such as CliffsNotes.  In a study at Liverpool University, scientists measured the brain's activity as a person read lines from Shakespeare and then again as the same person read a simpler modernized version.  Brain scans "showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions."

That's a good thing and the research also found that "reading poetry, in particular, increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with “autobiographical memory”, helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they have read. The academics said this meant the classics were more useful than self-help books."

"This," one of the study's authors said, "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 self-images.”

As another professor who participated in the study summed it up, "serious literature acts like a rocket-booster to the brain."

This being the modern world, however, we can't leave things there.  The "next phase of the research is looking at the extent to which poetry can provide therapeutic benefit ...."  I'm sure good poetry has a beneficial effect, but I wonder if even Shakespeare can survive the therapeutic mindset. 

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