From Biosis 4, May 2006

Boost Your Mental Activity, Increase Your Wellness

by Lisa Verigin, PhD

Lately, we’ve been hearing more and more about an active mental life being key to wellness. For instance, current [Spring 2006] research suggests that it’s an important component in preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Even in the short term, we tend to feel better and more alert when we engage in creative or intellectual thinking. Compare how you feel after passively watching TV for a few hours with how you feel after engaging in a lively conversation with a friend or partner, and you’ll start to see how much active thinking means to your well being.

Now a study from Scotland suggests that one type of mental activity in particular tends to strengthen the mind more than others: reading poetry. Psychological researchers at Dundee and St. Andrews Universities found evidence that reading poetry engages the brain much more than reading prose. It isn’t a matter of the quality of writing. It’s the format. Participants reading verses by Lord Byron showed greater cerebral activity than when reading passages from a Jane Austen novel. Likewise, when prose content was arranged to look like a poem, readers showed the increased eye-movement associated with deep thought and more active brain functioning in general.

Why should this be? One researcher suggested that it may have something to do with the latent preferences we have for rhyme and rhythm that develop in childhood.

Children love to play with sound. For example, one afternoon, as a friend’s young daughter and I watched a spider crawling along the railing around the porch where we sat, I asked the girl where she thought the spider was going. “Maybe it’s going to ballet class,” she said and giggled. I asked her if the spider would wear a tutu. She laughed again, then said, “The itsy-bitsy spider wore a tutu.” And she kept saying it. You could tell by her facial expression that something wasn’t quite right with how it sounded. Finally, she said, “The itsy-bitsy spider wore a little tutu!” And that was it. She smiled. She didn’t have to say it again. What had changed? The final sentence was rhythmically balanced: “Itsy-bitsy spider” has the same rhythm as “wore a little tutu.” That kind of rhythmic fulfillment is deeply satisfying.

The same goes for rhyme:

There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children,
She was tired all the time,

sounds funny because the rhyme doesn’t occur where the rhythm says we should expect it. But when rhyme occurs, we get a feeling of completion, even if the sense doesn’t match our expectations:

There was an old woman
Who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children,
Her face turned blue.

Much of the stuff of poetry goes deep down. It speaks to our early, primal selves. It would not be completely far-fetched to say that we are born to be poetic. The tendency to poetry is something that is gradually taught out of most of us – through teaching that bores us, through our discovering the functional (as opposed to ornamental) uses of language, through cultural stereotypes that tell us poetry is something only for the elite. For many, poetry becomes something to be feared. They worry about whether they will be able to understand it, to find the “secret meanings” that their teachers and one or two classmates always seemed to know in school but which they could never find.

The truth is, a great deal of poetry – both classic and contemporary – is extraordinarily accessible. It may have deeper, metaphorical meanings, but it doesn’t have to. More, our enjoyment of the poem doesn’t depend on grasping those meanings. We can enjoy poems for as many reasons as poems are written: for their sound, rhythm, individual images, the emotions they evoke in us….

So how do you find poetry you like? Go to the library and pick up an anthology – or explore any one of the numerous collections of online texts. Pick out poems at random. Read those that interest you, skip those that don’t. You just may find there are quite a few poets who pull at your imagination – and get that brain activity going and support your quest for wellness.

Copyright ©. Gary M. Verigin, D.D.S., inc. All Rights Reserved. California State Licensed General Dentist.
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