Saturday, August 09, 2008

The neuroscientist and Shakespeare - no, actually, this is fun!

In "The Shakespeared Brain", Philip Davis offers some interesting, non-reductive neuroscience research on why we react to some of Shakespeare's more unusual phrases the way we do.

By "non-reductive", I mean that he is not trying to persuade us that "we" don't really react to the phrases or understand their significance ("it's just your neurons firing, you know"). Indeed, Davis starts with the assumption that we do react to them because we try to understand them.

He focuses on a peculiarity of Shakespeare's writing - "functional shift." Shakespeare turns nouns into verbs or pronouns into nouns in arresting ways - for example, in Coriolanus, a man writes of his benefactor: "This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, godded me indeed." and in Twelfth Night, Olivia is called "the cruellest she alive."

The literary device of functional shift turns on a feature of English as a language. Its grammatical structure depends heavily on simple conventions of word order. That in turn means that words can change their function abruptly simply by being put in a different position in a sentence.

For example, consider
"Jane knew the ins and outs of the grocery business."
"In" and "out" are prepositions. They do not normally appear as nouns.

I made "in" and "out" into nouns by the simple act of parking them in a noun's position in the sentence. I reinforced their new position by making them plural. (That way, you know for sure that they are not prepositions any more.) If the sentence makes sense, that's all a reader (or hearer) requires.

I am told that not every language is suited to this device of functional shift - possibly because factors other than word order are used in those languages to organize thoughts.

Anyway, Shakespeare was obviously well aware of how such a functional shift can attract a hearer's attention. Davis, who is editor of The Reader magazine, decided to have a look at the neuroscience underlying that.

Functional shift was small and tight enough for experimentation. Up until now the main cognitive research done on the confusion of verbs and nouns has been to do with mistakes made by those who are brain-damaged. But hardly anybody appears to have investigated the neural processing of a 'positive error', such as functional shift in normal healthy people. We decided to try to see what happens when the brain comes upon these sudden new formulations in Shakespeare. We would use three pieces of kit. First, EEG (electroencephalogram) tests, with electrodes placed on different parts of the scalp to measure brain-events taking place in time; later, MEG (magnetoencephalography), an imaging technique using a helmet-like brain-scanner which measures effects in terms of location in the brain as well as their timing; and finally fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), which uses those tunnel-like brain-scanners that focus even more specifically on brain-activation by location. Together with my English Language colleague, Victorina Gonzalez-Diaz, I set up forty of the following four-sentence stimuli based upon Shakespeare, where 'A' is the control sentence or basic norm, making both grammatical and semantic sense; 'B' the Shakespearian functional shift (in this case adapted from Coriolanus 5.3); 'C' a functional shift in syntax but one that doesn't make sense in context; and 'D' a formulation that has no grammatical shift but still doesn't make sense semantically. People undergoing the experiment simply had to press a button if the sentence roughly made sense to them.

(A) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, deified me indeed.

(B) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, godded me indeed.

(C) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, charcoaled me indeed.

(D) This old man loved me above the measure of a father, nay, poured me indeed.
What happened?

Davis distinguishes between two types of sentence violations whose effects, once perceived, are registered in the brain: semantic violation (= the sentence doesn't make sense, called N400) and syntactic violation (= the sentence makes sense but doesn't read right, called P600). You can read the details here, but you won't likely be surprised to learn that the EEG picked up

(A) no reaction to A (just a normal sentence)

(B) a high P600 reaction to B "(because it feels like a grammatical anomaly) but no N400 (the brain will tolerate it, almost straightaway, as making sense despite the grammatical difficulty)."

(C) Both N400 and P600 were high because the sentence is both ungrammatical and meaningless.

(D) No P600 reaction because the sentence is grammatical but high N400 because it makes no sense.

Davis concludes that
... functional shift is what the scientists call a robust phenomenon: that is to say, it has a distinct and unique effect on the brain. Instinctively Shakespeare was right to use it as one of his dramatic mental tools.
(Mind you, if Davis had concluded from his research that Shakespeare was wrong to use functional shift, I would conclude that Davis himself should stay in neuroscience and not try to make a living as a playwright.)

What's fascinating is that Shakespeare may have been tapping into a little known feature of brain organization to achieve his effect. Davis suggests:
... 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.
Conscious evolution ... I like that. Alfred Russel Wallace would have liked it too.

Non-reductive research may shed light on how some stylistic devices draw a crowd - and others empty the theatre faster than a fire alarm, as people are suddenly seized with a conviction that watching shirts dry on the clothesline is way more interesting.

(Note: The image is from The Dallas Public Library Fine Books Division.)

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