Shakespeare on the brain

My default discussions of Art are, admittedly, concerned with the visual arts. My internal dialogues use Cezannes and Rembrandts and Giacommetties as examples. It is, therefore,  a pleasant surprise when I run into the same themes that have been churning in my painterly head expressed by artists of different mediums. In this particular case, the ideas put on literary clothing..

In painting, the relationship between form and content is essential. Art results when the two become one, that is when every physical form of the work is essential to communicating the meaning. Phillip Davis recently expressed this idea: “…I have become interested not only in the contents of the thoughts I read…but also in the very shapes these thoughts take; a shape inseparable, I feel, from that content.” Davis explored the works of Shakespeare, plumbing the depth of the word structure’s influence on the very geography of the brain. With the help of Professor Neil Robert, an experiment was born.

Davis first chose a recurring structure in Shakespeare’s works: the functional shift.

The process by which words change parts of speech without the addition of a prefix or suffix, as in soldier on, the verb, being created from soldier, the noun.

Shakspearean examples include:
“He childed as I fathered” (Lear): child and father have become nouns
“Strong wines thick my thoughts” (Lear): thick becomes a verb
“To lip a wanton in a secure couch” (Othello): lip becomes a verb and wanton becomes a noun

These little changes can trip-up the brain: “research suggests that these is one specific part of the brain that processes nouns and another part that processes verbs: but what happens when for a micro-second there is a serious hesitation between whether, in context, this is noun or a verb?” (I did some research to back this up, and here’s an article on the study.)

Thus, the experiment begins: 40 examples of Shakespeare’s functional shift. Each of these examples were randomly distributed amongst three counter-example sentences. To measure brain-events, both the violation of syntax and semantics, the subject would be connected to an EEG (electroencephalogram) while reading each sentence.  The individual would then respond to each sentence group, expressing which phrases made sense and which did not.

The dramatic beauty of the functional shift is in the results: the sentence makes sense fundamentally.  The brain does not pause so long in confusion as when reading syntactically or semantically incorrect sentence.  However, the brain is more active than when reading the “everyday” version of the sentence. The unexpected word-play puts the brain on edge, priming the mind for possible difficulty in the future. As Davis so eloquently puts it: “…while the Shakespearean functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole. Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments.”

I seems to me that Shakespearean sentence structures usher the reader or listener into the drama of the play.  These functional shifts are like a shape of bright color in a painting, its meaning weighted and presence unignorable. Your eyes cannot blot it out, just as your brain cannot simply skim past the Shakespearean syntax unbothered.  One is obliged to be involved in the very structure of the work and the puzzling together of the formal pieces into an unequivocal whole.


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