In the July issue of the magazine Literary Review, Philip Davis discusses the effect of William Shakespeare’s use of language on cognitive function.
Davis, a professor of English at the University of Liverpool, and editor of The Reader is working with psychologist Guillaume Thierry and cognitive neuroscientist Neil Roberts to explore how the brain responds to a linguistic trick called functional shift, or word-class conversion, in which the structure of a sentence is changed so that one part of speech (say a noun) is transformed into another (such as a verb).
Functional shift was often employed by the Bard – for example, when he wrote “lip something loving into my ear,” or when a character from The Winter’s Tale says that “thoughts would think my blood”.
Sentences structured in such a way are linguistically economical, because the meanings in them are compressed, but they also violate the laws of grammar, and are therefore processed somewhat differently from conventionally structured sentences.
Davis and his colleagues have therefore been using electroencephalogram (EEG) to detect the brain wave changes that occur in response to hearing Shakesperian sentences containing a semantic or syntactic violation.
[We found that] while the Shakespearian functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, 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.
In this way Shakespeare is stretching us, making us more alive, at a level of neural excitement…Our findings begin to show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence – at the neural level – of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.
These experiments are ongoing, but some of the initial findings were published in the journal Neuroimage back in January. The paper is available as a PDF, which causes Firefox 3 to crash, but can be downloaded in Internet Explorer, or by right-clicking in Firefox and selecting “Save Link As…”.