How reading Shakespeare affects the brain

At a time when England was just beginning to emerge from the shadow of Spain, so too was its language at a critical stage in its development. Nowhere near the standardized form we now know, but starting to take shape; and William Shakespeare would play a significant role in shaping it. Not only was he prolific, but he was willing to harness the English language in powerful new ways , creating phrases and figures of speech that would become integral to everyday dialogue. 

“With baited breath”, “love is blind”, and “method to his madness”; just a few examples of Shakespearean expressions you may have used at one point or another, perhaps without even realizing that they were derived from Shakespeare. Of the 17,677 words that comprise his works, around 10% were invented by him, with Hamlet alone containing about 600 words that were entirely new to the English language. 

But it’s not just the quotes and the characters that make Shakespeare so powerful. Research conducted by Professor Philip Davis from the University of Liverpool’s School of English, in collaboration with Professor Neil Roberts – head of MARIARC (Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre), has revealed that reading Shakespeare can have significant impact on brain activity. 

The functional shift

A signature element of Shakespeare’s writing style was his use of the ‘functional shift’ – meaning that he would occasionally have a noun or adjective function as a verb, or perhaps a verb as an adjective, or even a pronoun as a noun. Take for example this segment from King Lear:

                           “When that which makes me bend makes the King bow,
                            He childed as I fathered!”

Or this one, from “All’s Well That Ends Well”:

                        “He Hath out-villained villainy so far that the rarity redeems him”

The nouns ‘child’, ‘father’ and ‘villain’ have all been converted into verbs, but the important thing is that Shakespeare was able to do this whilst keeping the meaning of the sentence intact. This is the key to the power of his functional shifts. 

The unexpected grammar causes a spike in brain activity as the reader attempts to make sense of it; but it does so without causing any confusion regarding the actual context of the word. For example, the reader intuitively understands what Shakespeare is trying to get across with the phrase “He Hath out-villained villainy”; but the unconventional use of the word ‘villain’ causes them to instinctively double-back.

The brain has been stimulated without being confused. This is the difference between someone trying to solve a puzzle or riddle – an enjoyable kind of mental stimulation, versus the frustrated kind that would occur if they were unable to make sense of the puzzle at all. 

Professor Philip Davis claims that Shakespeare’s use of the functional shift turns his sentences into a kind of jigsaw puzzle, where the reader attempts to fit the pieces together whilst already knowing what the complete picture will look like.

Word waves

Professors Philip Davis and Neil Roberts measured electrical activity in the brains of subjects presented with examples of Shakespeare’s functional shift, and compared that to the reactions triggered by sentences where the contextual meaning rather than the grammatical structure had been disrupted, as well as sentences where both or neither had been affected.

In cases where the sentence no longer made sense due to the presence of a specific word, a negative brain wave was registered, peaking 400 milliseconds after mental processing of that word (otherwise referred to as ‘N400 effect’). 

However, in cases where the grammatical function of a word was altered but the meaning of the sentence still intact, as with Shakespeare’s functional shift; a positive brain wave was registered that peaked 600 milliseconds (P600 effect) after the word was processed by the reader. 

Professor Davis describes the P600 as the “wow” effect, “in which the brain is excited, and is put in a state of hesitating consciousness”. What’s more, the stimulating effect of the P600 brain wave takes a few moments to wear off; so each use of the functional shift lends additional momentum to the reading experience.  

So while it may be several centuries since Shakespeare’s writing sent electricity coursing through the English language, it seems as capable as ever of doing the same to the human brain.