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Your Brain on Shakespeare: How the Bard Makes You Smarter

You love Shakespeare's creative use of language. Now new research shows it actually makes your brain grow.

Need a reason to reread Romeo and Juliet? Researcher Philip Davis, a professor at the University of Liverpool's School of English, has been studying the brain and reading. He says exposure to Shakespeare's deliberate language mistakes—like using a noun as a verb—makes you smarter.

Shakespeare actually invented around 10 percent of the words he used in his plays, poems, and sonnets, and he plays with the grammatical roles of words—a line in Twelfth Night, "the cruellest she alive" morphs a pronoun into a noun. Davis says those creative mistakes make our brains "shift mental pathways and open possibilities." The more exposure we get to such creativity, the more alive our brain becomes. He points out that one of the dangers of the way we write and speak today—and, inevitably, the way we teach writing and speakingis its predictability. The discouragement of Shakespearean kinds of creative mistakes and the sameness of our modern language gradually deadens the brain.

Davis' research is still a work in progress, but I think he's on to something. Think of all the kids who can instantly recall Snoop Dogg's rap lyrics—with all their non-standard words and phrasingsbut can't recall the "correct" sentences in their social studies textbook. And, can't you just hear a modern English teacher telling a student that its incorrect to write, as Shakespeare did in King Lear, "He childed as I fathered"? If a kid changes a noun into a verb nowadays, she's going to get an F on her paper.

photo via Wikimedia Commons

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