20 December 2006

Shakespeare good for the brain

Cosmos Online
Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, according to a new British study, adding another layer of drama to the works of the bard.
Shakespeare good for the brain

Shakespearean language stimulates the brain in unique and pleasing ways, according to British researchers. Credit: Wikimedia

SYDNEY: Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, according to a new British study, adding another layer of drama to the works of the bard.

“The brain reacts to reading a phrase such as ‘he godded me’ from the Tragedy of Coriolanus, in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together,” said author Philip Davis, from the University of Liverpool in England. “If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit … the brain becomes excited.”

“By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity – a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

Davis’ team believes that this heightened brain activity may be one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have such a dramatic impact on their readers.

Shakespeare used a linguistic technique known as ‘functional shift’ that involves, for example, using a noun to serve as a verb (‘he godded me’). The researchers found that this technique allows the brain to understand what a word means before it figures out the word’s role in the sentence. This process causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand the sentence.

In the study, the team used an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the brain activity of 20 participants as they read excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays. In this technique, electrodes were placed on each subject’s scalp to measure brain responses.

“The effect [of Shakespeare] on the brain is a bit like a magic trick; we know what the trick means but not how it happened. Instead of being confused by this in a negative sense, the brain is positively excited,” explained co-author Neil Roberts, also from the University of Liverpool.

“The brain signature is relatively uneventful when we understand the meaning of a word, but when the word changes the grammar of the whole sentence, brain readings suddenly peak,” he said. “The brain is then forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of this unusual word.”

According to Roberts, when the brain reads a sentence that does not make semantic sense, the EEG registers what is called an N400 effect – a negative wave modulation. When the brain reads a grammatically incorrect sentence it registers a P600 effect, which continues well after the trigger word has been read.

The group found that when participants read the word producing the functional shift there was no N400 effect, indicating that the meaning was accepted. However, a P600 effect was observed, indicating that the brain was reevaluating the grammatical role of the word.

The team is now using magnetoencephalography and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test which areas of the brain are most affected. They are also exploring the role that exposure to Shakespeare could play in maintaining healthy brain activity.

Davis added, “This interdisciplinary work is good for brain science because it offers permanent scripts of the human mind working moment-to-moment … [through this research] we may discover new insights into the very motions of the mind.”

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