This Is Your Brain On Shakespeare


High-school students take note: your brains are actually changed by reading As You Like It.

That, at any rate, is the argument of one Professor Philip Davis of Liverpool University who for the past five years has studied your brain on the Bard. Describes the Guardian’s Robert McCrum,

Using EEG and fMRI scanning techniques, Davis has been testing individual responses to some of the playwright’s most daring innovations. “I had an intuition,” he says, “that functional shifts of syntax in Shakespeare might have an impact on the pathways of the brain, which is an extraordinary internal theatre.”…Davis will take a sentence, for example Albany’s charge to Goneril in King Lear: “A father, and a gracious aged man… have you madded.” This is an ungrammatical, highly energised compression. MRI scans suggest that it evokes a powerful neurological response. In the words of his collaborator Dr Guillaume Thierry: “The Shakespearean functional shift appears to prompt activation in the visual association cortex, ie in regions normally activated by visualisation; that is, the mind’s eye.”

As Davis himself explained in the Literary Review, the implications could be wide-ranging.

The experiments are slow and ongoing: we want to find where in the brain all this takes place and with what connectivity if one part of the brain speaks to another. For example, some neuroscientists believe that there is one area of the brain that processes nouns and a different area of the brain that processes verbs. Too often people suppose that brain experimentation is reductive, mechanically localising ‘love’, for example, to a specific part of the brain. But look at this case: supposing that nouns and verb are indeed separately localised, what happens when the brain is momentarily stunned by a functional shift that it cannot immediately identify as noun or verb? Then the brain is pressured into working at a higher adaptive level of conscious evolution, paradoxically undetermined by the localised laws and structures it nonetheless still works from.

Long story short? Shakespeare makes you smarter. Or, at the very least, did some really interesting things with language. Standby for in-vitro sonnet-recitation in 3…2…

The Shakespearean Brain [Literary Review]
Why Shakespeare Never Fails To Get Brains Buzzing [Guardian]

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