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 Shakespearean 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 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. 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.