Armchair Brain Science Research

There has been some Internet buzz over an obnoxious Christopher Hitchen’s piece (is there any other kind) in a recent issue of Vanity Fair. This post isn’t about the piece or the buzz, but if you’re interested, you can read some good responses here and here by people who seem to like Hitchens less than I do and are willing to use more ribald language than I am to say so.

The reason I even bring it up at all is that he cites a study from Stanford University that’s far more worth discussing than anything he has to say about it:

According to a new Stanford University School of Medicine study, gender affects the way a person’s brain responds to humor.

The first-of-its-kind imaging study showed that women activate the parts of the brain involved in language processing and working memory more than men when viewing funny cartoons. Women were also more likely to activate with greater intensity the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings in response to new experiences.

Okay, that makes sense. The brain is stimulated when it has to readjust to an unexpected outcome to a scenario, like the caption of a cartoon or the punchline of a joke. The result of this dissonance is perceived by our brains as funny, and this study demonstrates that women experience the effect more profoundly than men.

But, wait a minute! Doesn’t that sound a lot like the effect that was described by the University of Liverpool study that I blogged about last week:

Professor Philip Davis, from the University’s School of English, said: “The brain reacts to reading a phrase such as ‘he godded me’ from the tragedy of Coriolanus, in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited. By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity – a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

Just like a joke! Except that instead of a one-shot deal that makes us laugh, Shakespeare hits us with shift after shift until we’re carried away on a brain-chemical high. When Shakespeare finally gives us a release, it can be extremely intense emotionally. But the two studies appear to be describing the very same process.

So, based on these two studies, one might expect women to be more profoundly affected by Shakespeare than men would be. That is to say that women would feel more intensely the rewarding feelings (Stanford study) that Shakespeare’s use of language has been demonstrated to generate (Liverpool study).

I don’t mean to be an armchair brain science researcher or anything, but this might make for an interesting follow-up study. And clearly, some informal preliminary field research on my part is in order immediately.

One Response to “Armchair Brain Science Research”

  1. Shakespeare Teacher » Blog Archive » Shakespeare High Says:

    [...] that Shakespeare (and other classical writers) can stimulate the brain. For me, what stood out from earlier studies, was the attention to the duration of the phenomenon: The study went on to test how long the effect [...]

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