Howard Jacobson: It's official... if you take the trouble to read Shakespeare, your brain will thank you for it

Forgive my jubilation, but I have been waiting for this scientific proof for a long time
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The Independent Online

I'm not usually in favour of electrodes. Not on the brain, I'm not. And certainly not on my brain. It's possible I'm frightened of what they will detect. What if it's not as busy in there as I like to think? What if everyone's asleep? Or what if it's a cesspit and the electrodes turn blue? But mainly it's a decorum thing. Like the grave, the brain's a fine and private place and I don't want strangers looking into mine.

I have, however, just learnt something that changes my attitude to electrodes entirely. Vindication, I call it. For word is coming out of Liverpool University, where the distinguished English Professor Philip Davis has been working with a group of eminent neuroscientists, that electrodes prove what some of us already knew but had either lost the confidence to argue, or grown commonplace in arguing - namely, Shakespeare is good for the brain.

And not for any of the usual high-flown Coleridgean/ Arnoldian, Hegel/Schlegel/ Schmegel reasons. Not because Shakespeare "acts and speaks in the name of every individual", not because he is "the Spinozistic deity - an omnipresent creativeness", not because "Others abide our question / Thou art free", not because he makes his characters "free artists of themselves"; nor, indeed, because, in the words of our less exalted, prole-mad times, he wrote bloody good stories and would have been at home writing a weekly episode for EastEnders had he been alive today.

No, the reason Shakespeare is beneficial to the brain is that his syntactical surprisingness, to limit ourselves only to that, creates something like a neural flash of lightning, a positive wave or surge in the brain's activity, triggering a "re-evaluation process likely to raise attention" at the time and stimulate new pathways for the brain thereafter.

If I understand the science correctly, what happens is as follows. When electrode-fitted subjects are shown passages of Shakespeare in which, say, there are parenthentical distractions (eg, "that which angled for mine eyes - caught the water though not the fish - " ), grammatical violations and compressions, nouns doing the job of verbs and vice versa (eg, "He childed as I fathered"), and other examples of apparent misshapenness of expression, the electroencephalogram to which the subjects are wired notes modulations indicative of the brain's leaping about, quickly adapting itself to surprise, rethinking its normal processes, priming itself to look out for more difficulties, in other words performing, measurably, those very feats of intellection which we Eng Lit people have always claimed, though in fancier language, to be what we go to literature for. Hoorah!

Forgive my jubilation, but I have been waiting for this scientific proof a long time, both as a teacher of books and a writer of them. Of all the attacks the common-minded make on any book that can't be started and finished on a Tube ride from Waterloo to Stockwell, the most usual is that it is "hard going", that is to say fails to meet the contemporary criterion of unputdownableness. "Then thank me for it," I always say should the charge of "difficulty" be levelled at one of my novels from the front row of a blowy tent in a muddy festival of letters field.

"Struggling with a book has more of reading in it than flicking through it at a pre-determined rate," I remonstrate. "And laying it frequently aside to scratch your head does greater justice to a book's contents than never laying it aside at all. They also read who are not turning pages."

Why people who gauge the quality of what they read by the speed and ease with which they read it always sit on the front row, I can only guess. Because they would find it too difficult to navigate their way any further back, is one explanation. Pertness, is another. The ruder readers of this sort mean to be, the closer they like to sit to you. It's as though they are half-offering you sex. Beneath your imperspicuities, their dull eyes say, we know what it is you really want.

Now I can add science to my denunciations. Nothing will ever stop the pert believing that a difficulty unnecessarily clothes a simplicity, and that the hard writer therefore has something devious to hide. But at least they can now be shown that if they want to register some sign of brain life on an EEG machine they'd better knuckle down to grappling with what is not straightforward.

Do not mistake me. I do not value difficulty for difficulty's sake. Ulysses is sometimes harder work than it need be and Finnegans Wake too hard altogether. Our ears prick to self-indulgent obfuscation, or the out-of-touchness of a writer who has for too long kept company only with himself. And yes, there is merit in clarity. The Plain English Campaign fights a good fight against the jargon that means to disinform, or keep out those who don't share the ideology of the speaker.

But what happens in a novel or a play is not subject to the strictures of Plain English. There is no clear external meaning to which a complex line of poetry answers. There is no arrival point of knowledge which the words delay our reaching. The meaning of a line of poetry or prose is found in the utterance that creates it and nowhere else.

"If it can be said it can be said simply" is an unctuous piece of flattery to the electroencephalogramically challenged. Some anti-elitist concept of "communication" lies behind it, as though what the ear of the dunderhead cannot comprehend the voice of literature dare not speak. It is an assumption that lies close to those other reading-group inanities - "I can't identify with the characters" or "I don't find the hero a very nice person" - where the limitations of the reader's mind and expectations are paraded not in shame (in my day you kept your dwarf imagination a closely guarded secret) but exultation, as though the book in question is at fault, not you.

So, if an electroencephalogram can show how unexpectedness of syntax (and therefore meaning) will educate the brain into "more complex variations and syncopations", to borrow a lively phrase from Professor Davis, will it also do the opposite? Can it measure the brain's inertia when fed utterly familiar syntax and the utterly familiar attitudes and emotions which utterly familiar syntax serves? It's not strictly necessary: whoever reads only what the ignorant find "readable" has neural torpor inscribed across his countenance. But it would be fun to have scientific proof of what we know: that simple books make simpletons. And limpid prose is sure to leave us limp of mind.