A recent study at the University of Liverpool has determined that reading Shakespeare excites positive brain activity. Shakespeare’s writing uses functional shifts, where words are used as different parts of speech. “Thou losest here, a better where to find,” declares Kent to Cordelia in King Lear. In this case “where” becomes a noun. In the Tempest, Caliban protests at being treated like an animal with the lines “Here you sty with me/ In this hard rock.” Sty, here, is used as a verb. Such liberties with the parts of speech are common in Shakespeare’s writing.
When encountering something like this, the brain constructs meaning by putting together pieces of a puzzle. The brain is surprised when it finds words in odd places, and works harder to discern meaning from the words. The result is a burst in brain activity.
Researchers studied this by putting EEG sensors on the heads of 20 participants and measuring the effects as the participants read selected lines from Shakespeare’s plays. When the brain encounters something that doesn’t make semantic sense, it registers a negative wave modulation. When it reads a grammatically incorrect sentence, it registers a positive wave modulation. When reading lines with functional shifts, the tests measure a positive modulation, indicating excitement as the problems are solved and the text is understood.
Of course, there are two ways to interpret this. On one hand, it has been shown that reading Shakespeare results in positive brain activity. We do want to promote positive brain activity among our students, don’t we? On the other hand, though, literature is meant to be read, not solved. Even the most forgiving creative writing teachers have a problem with functional shifts. It took Google a decade to become accepted as a verb, and “disrespect” has yet to gain widespread acceptance as the verb “dis”, more than 15 years after its entry into our language in that context. If Shakespeare is so wonderful, why couldn’t (or wouldn’t) he write in a way that people could understand? His audiences were probably as lost as our students are.