Neuroscience of Shakespeare

In the current Literary Review, University of Liverpool professor Philip Davis, author of Shakespeare Thinking, describes his ongoing collaborations with neuroscientists to study The Bard's syntax and one of his favorite linguistic tricks: the functional shift. One kind of functional shift is the "verbing" of a noun -- for example, "parenting our children." Shakespeare frequently verbed nouns to great effect and Davis wanted to find out if the literary device could be understood with neuroscience. So he and his colleagues are using EEG and other methods to measure the brain's response to Shakespearian functional shifts. As Davis says, it's early in the study but "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." From the Literary Review:
 Wp-Content Uploads 2011 04 Shakespeare (Functional shift) happens when one part of speech is suddenly transformed into another with a different function but hardly any change of form. It sounds dull but in performance is almost electrically exciting in its sudden simple reach for a word. For example: an adjective is made a verb when in The Winter's Tale heavy thoughts are said to 'thick my blood'. A pronoun is made into a noun when Olivia in Twelfth Night is called 'the cruellest she alive'. Prospero turns adverb to noun when he speaks so wonderfully of 'the dark backward' of past time; Edgar turns noun to verb when he makes the link with Lear: 'He childed as I fathered.' As Abbott says, in Elizabethan English 'You can "happy" your friend, "malice" or "foot" your enemy, or "fall" axe on his head.' Richard II is not merely deposed (that's Latinate paraphrase): he is unkinged.

This mental instrument of fresh linguistic coinage, which Shakespeare used above all, holds in small within itself three great principles. Namely: the creative freedom and fluidity of the language at the time; the economy of energy it offered for suddenly compressed formulations; and the closeness of functional shift to metaphor - that characteristic mental conversion that Shakespeare so loved - in the dynamic shifting of senses.

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.

"The Shakespeared Brain" (Thanks, Mumbles Mumbach!)


  1. Sort of like Apple’s, Think Different.

    People want it to read, Think Differently.

    But it really means Think: ‘Different’

  2. In English, any noun can be verbed, and you can noun any verb.

    Quoting James D. Nicoll (who seems to have originated the concept):

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.

  3. @jfrancis: Please, for the children’s sake if not your own, never again equate the works of Shakespeare with a marketing slogan. Thanks.

    Also, for the record, that example you gave is not a function shift. Love, The Walbert.

    1. I don’t see why not. He’s pointing to an example. Copywriting can and should be considered as creative writing.

  4. It’s funny, I read this post right after I was bugging off Posdnuos’ final verse in The Bizness when it came up on my itunes:

    Kids think stepping
    to the Soul, you’re labeled fools
    who claim to drop jewels
    but for now you do the catching
    I don’t worry on what crew you run,
    or what section
    of earth you reside,
    you’re not even a man
    So I don’t deem it mandatory
    taking your pride
    But I will, cause my man said Soul for the life

    [the meter shifts a lot, I’ve tried to put the line breaks to make the internal rhymes more obvious]

    Here, “run” is a functional shift, I think. It is an abbreviated form of “run with;” meaning the crew you belong to, the company one keeps. In any event, rap is full of this type of thing, and really mind-bending wordplay and meter in general. At least, the good stuff is. But I suppose researching the Bard is a surer way to secure research grants, fortunately or unfortunately.

  5. What is it with neuroscientists? Why do they feel this incessant need to ‘explain’ Shakespeare with a few coloured blobs and wiggly lines? Can EEG really tell us anything about a literary device used by a particular author? Let me guess – we all have a Shakespeare-centre that only lights up when we hear lines written by the man himself? Is neuroscience running out of challenges? Have we solved it? Pah!

    (bit ranty – sorry – maybe the morning coffee was a bit strong)

    1. I will explain this very phenomenon in my upcoming article: The Neuroscience of Neuroscientists.

  6. Gyromagician, I never understand this idea people have that by studying something we’re somehow trying to reduce it. By studying things, we can actually enrich our experience of them…how is it somehow bad to try to create a deeper understanding of how his words touch us so deeply?

    If a deeper understanding somehow destroys the experience, then all Shakespeare scholarship should be banned, not just this. If, on the other hand, a deeper understanding of the social, historical, literary, etc. context of the man and his writing can enhance the experience of his work, then so will a deeper understanding of the neuroscientific and, dare I say, the biological and chemical context.

    Let us all celebrate in our own way.

    1. I’m really not trying to say that. I’m trying to say that the tools can’t do the job. They don’t have that kind of sensitivity. Reading Shakespeare, or even a postcard from a friend, produces all kinds of complex thoughts and feelings. Our machines and techniques are getting better – we’re a little beyond ‘feels GOOD/BAD’ – but not much. I seriously doubt whether it is possible to detect the difference between a subject reading a shopping list or reading Twelfth Night. And I find it frustrating, because these kinds of claims give good neuroscience tools a bad name.

      BTW, like the xkcd ref – that just about sums up why I enjoy working in science.

  7. Oh, one of my word-a-day alerts just popped the word “osmose” into my mailbox. I thought for a moment this was a great example of verbing “osmosis” and then got a thrill to see that apparently Shakespeare used the word.

    osmose \oz-MOHS\, verb:

    1. To gradually or unconsciously assimilate some principle or object.
    2. To undergo osmosis.

    Not a man osmose but he hath the wit to lose his hair.
    — William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors

    EXCEPT that actual text is:
    Not a man *of those* but he hath the wit to lose his hair.


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