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Gyles Brandreth's love of poetry

Blog | By Gyles Brandreth | Oct 01, 2020


Want to keep your brain in good shape on National Poetry Day? Use it to learn poetry or lose it

I am lucky enough to know five of this country’s leading actresses: Eileen Atkins, Judi Dench, Sheila Hancock, Vanessa Redgrave and Maggie Smith.

I am on friendly nodding terms, too, with Sian Phillips and Diana Rigg. What do these magnificent seven women have in common? Well, they are all now firmly in their eighties (three of them turn 85 this year), they are all still working, virtually non-stop, and they are all still learning lines.

How come? How do they manage to remember their words when almost everyone else you meet of their vintage is bemoaning their failing memory and complaining about the frustration of ever more frequent ‘senior moments’? It seems it’s largely down to practice.

I have spent this year working on a book about the power (and pleasure) of learning poetry by heart (Dancing by the Light of the Moon, out now). In the course of my researches, I encountered Professor Usha Goswami at the Memory Laboratory at Cambridge University, who taught me a good deal about the science of memory. Essentially, the brain is a computer into which we are loading more and more stuff as the years go by. Those infamous ‘senior moments’ occur not because we have lost anything, but because something has been temporarily mislaid. It’s a retrieval issue, not a memory one. Concentrate, focus and you should be able to bring it back.

‘At whatever age you are,’ according to Professor Goswami, ‘you still have the capacity to learn new things if you put your mind to it. There’s no shortage of brain cells as you grow older.’

She is unequivocal: learning poetry by heart is good for the brain.

‘So it’s true what they say,’ I suggested to her; ‘the brain is a muscle: if you don’t use it, you lose it.’

‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘You’ve got to keep the brain active. I have colleagues here at Cambridge in their seventies, eighties and nineties – none of them has dementia. The exercise and discipline of learning a poem by heart is certainly going to help keep dementia at bay.’

Gyles Brandreth is the author of Dancing by the Light of the Moon