Our Brains, on Shakespeare

At the Literary Review, Philip Davis argues that reading Shakespeare changes our brains in the moment, not by discussing it after the fact. (Link from Arts & Letters Daily)

Shakespeare is stretching us, making us more alive, at a level of neural excitement never fully exorcised by later conceptualisation; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments.

He offers early studies of brain activity to back up his theory. I’ll be interested to see if these experiments are sound and stand up to scrutiny. I’d also be interested to learn if there’s a difference in the brain’s response to reading Shakespeare versus hearing/seeing Shakespeare performed, as it was intended.

3 Responses to “Our Brains, on Shakespeare”

  1. MFS Says:

    I read the excerpt and thought, “Hmmm. That’s sounds *really* familiar.”


  2. girldetective Says:

    Yep, same concept from the same writer, but with slightly different articles. Good for him for getting mileage out of good material.

    Steph, as a neurology student, do you have any insight into the study/theory?

  3. Steph Says:

    Study is good, conclusions are interesting, although I’m not sure that I’m buying all of what Davis is selling. I have several questions about the study:

    1) We see that Shakespeare elicits a P600 but not an N400, indicating that participants understand the gist of what is being said, but also recognize that the structure is somewhat weird. BUT there are several things that could influence this, I think.
    a) With the example they use, it’s possible that the P600 could represent some type of “error-monitoring” on the participants part. What if they were thinking “godded” were a typo for “goaded”? (hard to believe, but trust me, unless you ask, you never know what participants were doing or thinking!)
    b) Ostensibly, the Shakespeare sentences - though different by just one word - would be considered syntactically more difficult to parse and process than the first “modern” sentence. What would happen if you had people read more complex sentences compared to simpler ones? (Say a Thomas Pynchon vs. Steven King…) When looking at things in the brain, it’s critical to equate for difficulty. This effect is probably not just specific to Shakespeare, is what I’m saying. It may not even have anything to do with Elizabethan English.

    2) Davis says that participants were required to push a button indicating when sentences appeared to make sense to them. This would suggest that you’d automatically remove having an N400. What proportion of Shakespeare sentences were people claiming to understand (and as a side note, could you use the N400 to predict whether they really did or not? Imagine if your English teachers could use that test on you instead of having you write essays!)? What happens on trials with “good” Shakespeare sentences that people don’t get? Furthermore, are there any instances with sentences of the C & D nature that participants sometimes claim to understand? If so, do the N400s disappear there?

    3) We know about people’s brain activity from this study, but how long after reading the sentence did it take for people to press buttons saying it made sense or not? I suspect people understood sentence A a lot faster than they did sentence B. And if that’s the case, how would this translate to watching Shakespeare live, when you can’t go back and read the passage again? By looking at reaction times, you’d get a good sense of this.

    4) Finally, the thing about ERP research is that it’s meant to have great temporal resolution (down to milliseconds), but a single peak really doesn’t mean that the activity is sustained after the fact. If there are sustained signs of activity post-Shakespeare phrase, this isn’t really the sign of he work changing the brain, so much as someone exerting more attention/effort to try to make sense of things. For example, would Davis argue that greater activation during calculus versus addition means that calculus changes the brain? It probably just means you find it harder! Quotes like “… it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and extra emergent consciousness, and giving more power and sheer life to the sentence as a whole” are hyperbole worthy of the bard. I’ll give him heightened attention, but there’s nothing to suggest the P600 is associated with consciousness or that it’s associated with the vividness of a sentence. You’d have to many other controls before you can conclude that. Instead, all you can say is that people understand Shakespeare, but he sounds a little funny.

    I could probably come up with more questions (it’s what I’m trained to do), but I think you probably get the gist of what I’m saying (no N400 for you!). We may very well process Shakespeare (and indeed, any unfamiliar writing, say Chaucer or maybe even Austen) differently than we would our modern-day parlance, but these studies don’t show that we respond more viscerally to his writing. For studies like that, you would probably want to do fMRI research (which he says they are), and look at whether you’re getting strong subcortical responses (particularly in areas like the anterior cingulate cortex (involved in conflict resolution) and the amygdala (a big emotion processor).