IF LITERATURE is food for the mind, then a poem is a banquet, according to research by Scottish scientists which shows poetry is better for the brain than prose.
Psychologists at Dundee and St Andrews universities claim the work of poets such as Lord Byron exercise the mind more than a novel by Jane Austen.
By monitoring the way different forms of text are read, they found poetry generated far more eye movement which is associated with deeper thought.
Subjects were found to read poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with prose.
Preliminary studies using brain imaging technology also showed greater levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud.
Dr Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a member of the research group, believes poetry may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop during childhood.
the intense imagery woven through poems, and techniques used by poets to unsettle their readers, force them to think more carefully about each line.
"There seems to be an almost immediate recognition that this is a different sort of language that needs to be approached in a way that will be more attentive to the density of words in poetry," she said.
"It may be because readers are trying to hear the words or recreate the imaginary event the poet has provided a script for.
"Also, children seem to be born with a love of rhyme and rhythm. Then something happens and by the time we see them in the first year at university many of them are almost frightened of poetry and clamouring to study the contemporary novel."
To study readers’ reactions, the research group focused an infrared beam on the pupils of their eyes to detect minute movements as they read.
They found poetry produced all the standard psychological indications associated with intellectual difficulty, such as slow deliberate movement, re-reading sections and long pauses.
Even when they used identical content but displayed it in both a poem format and a prose format, they discovered readers found the poem form the more difficult to understand.
Stabler said: "When readers decide that something is a poem, they read in a different way. As literary critics we would like to think that this is a more thoughtful way, more receptive to the text’s richness and complexity, but in psychological terms it is the same sort of reading produced by a dyslexic reader who finds reading difficult.
"We focused on poetry that disturbs or unsettles readers like the work of Lord Byron.
"We found that his stanza form in Don Juan does make subjects read more quickly than readers focusing on the rhymes of an elegy in a similar metre."
Stabler believes those reading other poets, such as Robert Burns, would show similar increases in brain activity.
The group hopes to use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to watch how the brain reacts as people listen to poetry and prose. Early results suggest a larger area of the brain lights up in the scans upon hearing poetry by Byron than prose by Austen.
The research has profound implications for the way English literature is taught in schools, and Stabler believes they should consider placing greater emphasis on teaching youngsters poetry.
Both rhythm and rhyme have been found to be intricately linked with making and recalling memories. Stabler asked: "If poetry helps to stir memory, might it be useful in the treatment of age-related or injury related memory problems?"
Dr Martin Fischer, an experimental psychologist at Dundee University involved in the project, claims the findings could also form the basis for producing new techniques for helping dyslexic children.
He said: "It certainly has implications for children who have certain difficulties, like in dyslexia where a rhyming deficiency could be compensated for by exposing them to more poetry."
Members of the literary world have welcomed the research and insist it underlines the importance poetry has played in literature. Bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin said too many people felt intimidated by poetry without realising it was designed to be challenging.
He said: "Novels first began as a form of poetry where story telling was used to pass tales from one generation to the next. This was done with rhythm and rhyme as it made the stories easier to remember.
"We are even seeing that today with song lyrics - the only way rap artists can remember all those lyrics is because they have rhythm and rhyme.
"Not many people pick up books of poetry anymore to read. You have to wonder if people find them too hard."
Edwin Morgan, the nation’s official Makar, the Scottish equivalent of the poet laureate, added: "Writing poetry is almost a physical experience as well as mental. Children are rarely worried about extracting too much meaning from poems, but they seem to get a much deeper experience from it."