Do you ever feel mentally sharper after reading high literature? Philip Davis, an English professor at the University of Liverpool, does--particularly after reading works by William Shakespeare. The way that the Bard structured lines--what Davis calls the "functional shift"--seems to prime the mind. Davis wanted to know if this was a scientifically verifiable phenomenon. So several years ago, he asked people to read lines while hooked up to electroencephalography (EEG) equipment:
But around each of those sentences of functional shift we also provided three counter-examples which were shown on screen to the experiment's subjects in random order: all they had to do was press a button saying whether the sentence roughly made sense or not. Thus, below, A ("accompany") is a sentence which is conventionally grammatical, makes simple sense, and acts as a control; B ("charcoal") is grammatically odd, like a functional shift, but it makes no semantic sense in context; C ("incubate") is grammatically correct but still semantically does not make sense; D ("companion") is a Shakespearian functional shift from noun to verb, and is grammatically odd but does make sense:
A) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would accompany me.
B) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would charcoal me.
C) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would incubate me.
D) I was not supposed to go there alone: you said you would companion me.
What happened to our subjects' brains when they read the critical words on screen in front of them?
According to the EEG, subjects had a greater comprehension of more complex lines once they had read a line featuring Shakespeare's functional shift:
In other words, while the Shakespearian 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. Our findings 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.
Link -via VA Viper | Image: Hans Dunkelberg