Monday, December 10, 2007

grammar and neuroplasticity

Philip Davis has a fascinating piece in The Reader (UK) entitled "The Shakespeared Brain" which addresses an issue I for one, and I imagine many of us who have read and studied experimental poetry for any extended period of time, have suspected to be the case -- that non-normative grammar might change the way the brain works.

shakespeareBeginning with "a specific intuition – about Shakespeare: that the very shapes of Shakespeares lines and sentences somehow had a dramatic effect at deep levels in my mind," Davis conducted an experiment with Neil Roberts, a neuroscientist at the University of Liverpool, regarding the cognitive effect of a characteristic Shakespearean rhetorical device known as "anthimeria," or the syntactial forcing of one part of speech to perform the labor of another, i.e.
to try to see what happens inside us when the brain comes upon sentences like 'The dancers foot it with grace', or 'We waited for disclose of news', or 'Strong wines thick my thoughts', or 'I could out-tongue your griefs' or 'Fall down and knee/The way into his mercy'. For research suggests that there is one specific part of the brain that processes nouns and another part that processes verbs: but what happens when for a micro-second there is a serious hesitation between whether, in context, this is noun or verb. The main cognitive research done so far on the confusion of verbs and nouns has been to do with mistakes made by those who are brain-damaged and thus on the possible neural correlates of grammatical errors and semantic violations. Hardly anybody appears to have investigated the neural processing of a 'positive error' such as functional shift in normal healthy organisms.
The results are fascinating, and vary depending on whether or not the resulting shift creates sentences that still make some sense or not given the violation of normative grammar. But Davis goes on from this evidence to muse further (and in ways that will not surprise anyone who has worked with victims of traumatic brain injuries whose neural functioning has moved and thus been regained):
Shakespeare's syntax, its shifts and movements, can lock into the existing pathways of the brain and actually move and change them – away from old and aging mental habits and easy long-established sequences. It could be that Shakespeare's use of language gets so far into our brains that he shifts and new-creates pathways - not unlike the establishment of new biological networks using novel combinations of existing elements (genes/proteins in biology: units of phonology, semantics, syntax , and morphology in language). Then indeed we might be able to see something of the ways literature can cause affect or create change, without resorting to being assertively gushy.
Upon reading this I was immediately led to recall the audio file of a Bernadette Mayer class on experimental writing techniques, held June 1978 at Naropa, during which Mayer reads passages from Clark Coolidge's Polaroid (page 69), Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation (LIII), and Shakespeare's Sonnet 105 and invites students to explore the connections. It's a 39 minute audio file, and the passage in question takes place beginning at 7:00 minutes into the file. I won't reproduce those texts here but will include a subsequent experiment conducts, namely to offer three lines, one each from the three authors in question, and invite readers to consider which is by which. (Answer key in the comments.)
Test #1:
to one of one still such and even so
itself in come as same
and now and hours not at all
Test #2
once more to add feeling to feeling
off near to points in itself
one thing expressing leaves out difference
I reproduce Mayer's exercise in fun but also in the spirit of the very serious implications of Philip Davis' insight, namely to consider form his Shakespeare example what neuroplasticity potential lies in the writing of Stein and Coolidge among others.


tmorange said...

In Test #1 the lines are by Shakespeare, Coolidge and Stein respectively. In Test #2 the lines are by Stein, Coolidge and Shakespeare respectively.

mark wallace said...

All this makes sense to me, but I would add that it works in the other direction too: constant use of bland normative language affects the brain also. It reminds me of that old cliche of how some artists killed their talent because they had to paint portraits for money. I've noticed it before in myself; long periods of time spent around dull language makes my own sense of language duller. It's one of the reasons I can't write poetry at certain moments.

phaneronoemikon said...

it's odd, but i've just developed
a concept i call "Vouns" which strangely enough I say "Voon" like
swoon, but there's this:

Voon (Tarso Voon) is a stratovolcano located in the Northeastern portion of the Tibesti volcanic field in the Northern tip of Chad, Africa.

Out of that I got


which compels me back
on an earlier echo

with a term i had:

signous (as in sign + ignus)
or "sign-fire"

and makes me think
of the physics idea
of a 'future causality'

how signous as in nous
as mind is

and that there is the


so the bridge or the pont
between the noun and verb

that's intentional

perhaps Heraclitus is just
and old saw player

but change
is chang[e]

something like a lyre
or lyrical consciousness
as pontifex

a bridgebuilder
as in neuronal/astrocytal

like ant chains
the mind can be taught to

if grammar and spelling
and the like are the names
of the towns on the map

there's still plenty of
open country

a mare a mer
a murmur

gramurmuring es pelling langue
lung to chang change a spiel

a spiel aspell
as a toy lettering

f is lush!

Ryan W. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan W. said...

I saw a great show on PBS about plasticity of the brain, and exactly as Mark suggests, it goes both ways. one of the more striking examples, having to do more with motor function than cognitive ability: people look down more as they age because of fear of falling. as a result, they gradually rely more on vision to orient themselves vertically, and less on the part of the brain that deals with their real sense of balance. thus, when they stumble even a little, they are going to fall, because stumbling shifts their line of sight, which they've come to rely on for balance. the process self-reinforces. as balance gets worse, they are more likely to look down as they walk. which worsens their balance.

likewise with anything the brain does. it is a very plastic thing, and the changes are, I suspect, more rapid than we usually suspect.

interesting that in this case it is science that catches up with literature... I think we've gotten used to the idea that in recent decades literature lags science, tries to make sense of rapid changes in science, and can never quite keep up. in this case that's flipped. but that also has implications, that catching up. what happens when we actually understand the brain well enough to understand literature and what it does to the brain physiologically? does literature then become just a practical matter, an instrument? I guess not... I guess, I don't know... probably a ways off in any case.