Every day we hear in the media that exercise is good for improving our mood, keeping our cholesterol in check and lowering our blood pressure. What about exercising our brains? I believe that with as little as five minutes a day, it is possible to reverse cognitive decline. Some memory loss is normal, but through conscious mental activity, we can maintain the integrity of our brain. Learning a poem, at any age, keeps our minds active and stimulated, and improves memory.
There are benefits to learning a poem by heart. As we age it is important to change up our routines and challenge ourselves every day. According to The Scaffolding Theory of Cognitive Aging (STAC), developed in 2009, the brain responds to aging in different ways. Though there is a natural degradation in cognition, these processes can be reversed in response to stimulating activities and learning.
You might be saying at this point, “But why should I attempt to learn a poem when I can Google it?”
When one goes deep into the poem, spending days or weeks with it, the nuances that might slip past when merely reading the poem become more obvious. The more time we spend with a poem, the more it becomes a friend. Practicing different intonations for a phrase can uncover a new twist on the poem’s meaning, while also stimulating new brain activity.
A social benefit of learning a poem by heart includes a sense of poise that develops when one recites from memory. Public speaking becomes less daunting when one can effortlessly recall “Ode to a Nightingale.” The energy it takes to learn a poem can help to develop focus and improve self-confidence.
Exploring the imagery of a poem can inspire imagination and enhance creativity. Spending time with a poem can encourage greater understanding and empathy. Poems written centuries ago give us a glimpse into other times and cultures.
If improving vocabulary if your aim or developing an understanding of English syntax, learn a Keats or Shakespeare sonnet. If you want to impress your friends, learn a longer poem like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot. Waiting for an appointment, you will have a pleasant distraction when you can recall a poem you have memorized. Waiting in line at the grocery store or stuck in a traffic jam become more tolerable when you actively engage your brain by recalling a poem you have learned.
In a society that is moving so fast, slowing down to memorize a poem can be a calming activity. If you really want to do something that is pure self-enrichment, learn a poem. All of these benefits will complement a strengthened memory.
Ginger Lambert is receiving a BS in Exercise Science in May of 2014. She writes a blog on matters related to fitness and brain health. She is working on memorizing her 21st poem and teaches a workshop on memorizing poems by heart.
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