One of the books I’m reading at the moment is Ilium, a science fiction novel by Dan Simmons that is set in the future and features such exotica as quantum transport, sentient machines, and sophisticated nanotechnology. It’s one of those novels where it takes awhile to see how the various story lines are connected and what the big picture is, so reading it is an exercise in puzzle-solving, with lots of those pleasurable little electric jolts to the brain when you see a connection or fit another piece of the puzzle into place.
The most fascinating thing about the novel to me, though, is the way that literature is woven into the tale. For some reason not yet clear to me, some kind of superhuman or post-human entities are re-enacting the Trojan War on a terraformed Mars, and of course the Iliad is one of the oldest human stories preserved in literature. A consortium of sentient machines from the moons of Jupiter are alarmed by the quantum fluctuations they see on Mars, and a small fleet of the machines is dispatched to investigate.
Two of the sentient machines, possibly my favorite characters in the book so far, are students of human literature. One of them is a fan of Shakespeare and the other has learned quite a lot about the bard but has decided that Proust is really his favorite author. Watching the story unfold itself is fun, but even more fun are the literary quotes these two share in their discussions. The beings running the Trojan War are by and large a repellant lot, and the people left on the surface of the earth are leading a bland existence unseasoned by challenge or meaning (although for a few of them I suspect that is about to change). The idea of a future in which the richness of human literature is cherished most fully by biomechanical creatures is somehow haunting.
So I was in a good frame of mind to investigate this article from The Reader magazine. (For starters, I really like the visual pun in the header.) Philip Davis, a professor of English, describes some work he has begun with a couple of brain imaging specialists to investigate what happens to brains that are exposed to a particular literary device used to great effect by Shakespeare. The device is the shifting in function of a word–for example, using a noun as a verb or a verb as an adjective. He gives several examples, including this from King Lear: “He childed as I fathered.”
Davis was curious about what happens when the brain has to process these shifts in function, which is an especially interesting question in light of some work that suggests that nouns and verbs are processed in different areas of the brain. You would expect a bit of a hesitation as the brain has to decide how to interpret the shifted word. He and a colleague a set of sentences that illustrate function shift, along with some control sentences that are either normal or that use function shift in a meaningless way (e.g., “The pizza was too hot to sing”). EEGs were taken of subjects as they read the sentences (in the future, further tests including fMRI will be done).
The results showed that processing a Shakespearean function shift produced a distinctive pattern of electrical activity–which in itself is pretty cool, to find a link between a particular pattern of word usage and brain activity. The pattern of activity seems to indicate that comprehension was attained but with some additional effort compared to a more normal sentence. Shakespeare, of course, knew nothing of the electrical activity of the brain, but Davis points out how successfully he exploited that extra effort to add emphasis and depth, and to stretch our minds. It’s a small study so far, but it illustrates the potential for productive interaction between science and the humanities.
By the way, this is my thousandth blog post. The event seems to call for a celebration of some sort, so perhaps a bit of chocolate is in order.