Science Says Reading the Classics Makes You Smarter, Nicer, Better Overall

My fellow bookworms, do you have inferiority complexes because (sometimes) you still count with your fingers when doing simple math? My loveable reading rainbows, don’t feel bad about yourselves. If you enjoy Shakespeare, other classical texts, and poetry, your brain has superpowers. Here’s something to consider next time you find yourself between the (book) covers wearing nothing but your rodeOH, snuggling with your cat and contemplating Elizabethan drag culture in Twelfth Night: science now confirms that reading the famous bard and his literary companions literally lights up your brain and makes you not only smarter but also a better person.

At Liverpool University, scientists, psychologists, and English academics scanned the brain activity of volunteers reading works by William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, and T.S. Eliot. Volunteers were then made to read modern translations of the texts while having their brain activity monitored again. The verdict? The more challenging the text, the more the brain lit up, causing English professor Philip Davis, who collaborated on the study at the university’s magnetic resonance centre to conclude that “serious literature acts like a rocket booster to the brain.” He continued, explaining, “The research shows the power of literature to shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes, and connections in the young and staid alike.” We’ve already told you that reading fiction makes you a nice person, but so does reading poetry and plays! The connections lighting up your brain and rocket boosting new neurological pathways increase your self awareness, therefore making you an all-around more decent person to be around.



According to the article:

“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.”

Hold on a minute, you may be angrily muttering to yourself, is Autostraddle seriously telling me I need to read a bunch of dead white men called William to be a better person? Excuse me while I minimize your article to dismantle patriarchal language by reading a PDF of the beginning of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. To which I would reply, yes! Go read Judith Butler! It’ll also make you smarter, nicer, etc. The Liverpool University team found that the brain benefitted from the classics because it was presented with different sentence structures and words used in unfamiliar ways. Following that logic, Judith Butler, who definitely uses words in new ways, can also act like a “rocket booster” to your mind as can any writer who dares to creatively play with words and sentence structure. Why don’t you go reread all of our Pure Poetry pieces? It’ll be good for your brain. I’m guessing that the same goes for learning a new language or even dating someone from a different country/region who speaks English a little differently than you do. Orgasms light up the brain too. Just sayin’.

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Malaika likes books, drinking tea, long conversations, dinner parties, making funny faces, bike rides, and dogs. Originally from Edmonton, she now lives in Montreal where she edits, runs, and writes about the Alberta Tar Sands for The Media Co-op. You can follow her on twitter @Malaika_Aleba.

Malaika has written 84 articles for us.


  1. I love reading me some dead white guys literature. But for reals. This makes me happy! Excuse me while I go tell every other English major I know that we’re smarter than other people (as if we needed a reminder).

  2. I like the idea of rocket boosting new neurological pathways. I also like this article.

    Side note: I used to bike alongside my dad wI got tired and started to lag on the hills, he would grab the back of my bike seat and give me a “rocket boost”. Thanks for jogging that memory : ]

    • Correction: “…alongside my dad when he went on his runs. When I got tired…” I wish I could edit.

  3. Awesome! Good to know my love of Shakespeare has even more benefits than just being able to write great love letters and insult people in colorful ways. :D

    Wonderful piece.

  4. If you would like to read a lady gay author who uses language in a wonderful way that will certainly light up your brain, I highly suggest Jeanette Winterson. Specifically “Art & Lies” (although if you’ve never read Winterson I’d start with “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”). I don’t think I really understand half of what she’s saying in that book but the way she uses language is so beautiful it almost doesn’t matter.

    • Yes to Jeanette Winterson! I love ‘The Passion’, but this makes me think I should try out her other books as well.

      • The most beautiful Jeanette Winterson book is Written on the Body. Try reading Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s “Hell” – describing the circles of hell. Fabulous.

  5. Hey! This is great news! I have recently gotten more in to poetry. As far as fiction goes, it’s trashy Best Seller List mystery books. No shame.

    I am so glad you linked those poetry posts because I was just thinking how I needed new poetry in my life. Mary Oliver man. So good.

  6. i don’t doubt the fact that reading (especially reading challenging material) is good for your brain,
    but this study is uncontrolled (lexical frequency?? grammatical structure?? novelty?? attention?? what), over-interpreted, and ugh i can’t even with the circular reasoning.
    showing some activation blobs does not in any way prove anything about “making you smarter” or “triggering reappraisal mechanisms causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences in light of what they read” or whatever bs claims are made here. it only shows your brain is active while reading, and that certain brain regions get differentially activated while reading certain texts as compared to other (differently structured) texts. well wow.

    (i’m sorry AS i still love you but this just makes me want to scream)

    • yeah, /fMRI world problems

      im not sure if its an issue with the science writer’s interpretation or with the study itself, but those claims are pretty lofty. i would have been satistfied with just the emphasis on identification of differentially activated areas. i guess to a degree you can speculate as to the reason certain areas are being lit up, as certain brain areas have been heavily implicated in their functions, but “make you smarter” has nothing to do with lighting up the amygdala when you read an emotion-triggering word.

      • yes, exactly. also,
        “previous work showed that region Y was activated by process X. our task also activates region Y, ergo, our task must involve process X.”

        no, that is a logical fallacy.

        (i want to reiterate i don’t think the premise of the study is necessarily wrong, i just don’t see any justification of the conclusions by the presented results)

      • I love you both right now. So much so that I even went through the process of trying to find my autostraddle password to log in so I could tell you both how much I love you.

    • also noooo, using “science” to claim that literacy makes you smarter or your brain better, especially literacy focused on a certain class of writing populated by European white guys. :(

    • Thank you! It’s always disappointing how popular media sensationalizes and exaggerates scientific findings to unbelievable proportions. As long as you slap a brain image or two in the news article, it’s instantly credible and valid…hate that. Why don’t they link us to the actual published scientific article?

  7. besides my general loathing of shakespeare, i wonder how reading science (or probably many other fields, i can only speak from a scientific perspective) research papers affects the brain. depending on the subject, that shit can be pretty abstract/hard to *really* understand without rereading and contextualizing, lemmetellya. also i find that if you are really into the subject matter and try and piece together the implications and problems and future avenues it tends to turn into an introspective “beautiful mind” moment. i am definitely not telling anyone to go read science papers, because interest is clearly subjective, as it is with poetry and such, but im pretty sure there are quite a few of us researcher AS’ers, so im curious as to your thoughts. (also i found after getting into research and having to read >9000 papers, when i finally do get chances to read novels, its like speed reading, DO YOU HAVE THIS TOO???)

    also back to the findings, its interesting that poetry had a greater impact than self-help when they emphasized it being based on self-application, as they both would technically, except poetry is definitely more abstract than someone telling you to do something such as Find a Happy Place/Do What You Love! (so i would have put the emphasis on that difference).

    …basically i want to feel like i have rationalized the fact it takes up all my time to read science papers that id love to have for reading poetry, fiction etc. (cry)

  8. Someone needs to tell this to my nightmare of a ex-girlfriend who happens to be an English major. I don’t thing she got the memo that she’s supposed to be nice.

  9. I did a paper on rape / sexual violence in Shakespeare last term, he is so full of rape apologism – so full – most Renaissance poetry says really awful thing about rape (especially, it says women who are raped should kill themselves to save ‘the honour’ of their husbands / fathers) and Renaissance love poetry was really influential in spreading and giving legitimacy to a lot of myths about rape e.g. women are always consenting, if they say no, they’re just teasing etc. So I’m quite suspicious whenever somebody says reading ‘the classics’ makes you a nicer / better person – I guess that, yeah, reading anything can make you my empathetic, but reading texts so embedded in toxic ideologies can make you internalize all kinds of harmful beliefs.

    Well, hmm, that’s a bit reductive – I should give the queer woman reader of classics more credit, she probably already knows how to deal with rape culture. I dunno, I did start my Eng Lit degree thinking that reading a lot of old ‘classical’ books was going to be fun, but along the way I realized that not even ‘queer criticism / theory’ can save most ‘classics’ and that it’s more interesting and useful to try to focus on texts the canon overlooks, especially female authored ones.

  10. Twelfth Night was the play that made my teenage still-deeply-closeted self fall in love with Shakespeare. I blame Trevor Nunn’s film version for my obsession with androgynous blonds.

  11. “…because (sometimes) you still count with your fingers when doing simple math?”

    This is a thing. I once had a professor laugh at me for counting on my fingers to solve a problem in my pharmacokinetics class. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as baffled as when proceeded to the only one to get the right answer.

    My reading goal for this year is to read more classics. “Classics” in my brain being books that are now >100 years old and therefore out of copyright and in the public domain. Not for any benefit they may or may not have for my brain, but because I feel like I should read more than just science nonfiction and the same YA fantasy novels I’ve been reading since middle school. If that doesn’t happen, that’s okay, because priorities.

  12. Dostoevsky was my introduction to literature who noted that, “Man is unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy.”

    While I do not particularly agree with reading the classic works of mentioned authors are the most beneficial to increasing our brain stimulation, awareness, wisdom or intelligence, I am quite fond of the works of Homer, Proust, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Aurelius, Thich Nhat Hanh, etc., and so believe that those classical works of literature makes one a scholar to some extent. It is those authors who teaches us about ethics, society, wisdom, struggles, true art.

    Proust once said, “Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life, little boy,” he added, turning to me. “You have a soul in you of rare quality, an artist’s nature; never let it starve for lack of what it needs.”

  13. Oh don’t worry! It’s not all just a bunch of dead white guys. There’s Bronte(s), Sand, Austen, Millay, Whitman (he doesn’t have gender labels) etc… The list goes on and on! OMG! I’m so happy I read this article!

  14. What study is this? I’m writing a paper and I need some hard info for why reading classics is good for you.

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