Thursday, December 21, 2006

Positive Voltage Does Not Equal Excitation. Or Worse, Positive Emotion!

Oh no!
Reading Shakespeare Has Dramatic Effect On Human Brain

Research at the University of Liverpool has found that Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, adding further drama to the bard's plays and poetry.

Shakespeare uses a linguistic technique known as functional shift that involves, for example using a noun to serve as a verb. Researchers found that this technique allows the brain to understand what a word means before it understands the function of the word within a sentence. This process causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.

. . .

Professor Neil Roberts, from the University’s Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre, (MARIARC), explains: “The effect on the brain is a bit like a magic trick; we know what the trick means but not how it happened. Instead of being confused by this in a negative sense, the brain is positively excited. The brain signature is relatively uneventful when we understand the meaning of a word but when the word changes the grammar of the whole sentence, brain readings suddenly peak. The brain is then forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of this unusual word.”
This study was covered in a similar manner in an APA-sponsored site! How embarrassing for them!
Reading Shakespeare excites the brain
United Press International - December 19, 2006

LIVERPOOL, England, Dec 19, 2006 (UPI via COMTEX) -- British researchers have found reading Shakespeare has a dramatic effect on the human brain, producing positive brain activity.

To explain a little, the researchers recorded EEG while participants read selections from Shakespeare. They were looking for EEG signatures of semantic violations (indexed by a negative voltage brain wave at ~400 msec, called the N400) and syntactic violations (indexed by a positive-voltage brain wave at ~600 msec, called the P600).
Above figure from a different study, published in Biological Psychology by Isel et al. (2006)

The brain waves were obtained by averaging a bunch of EEG trials together, and these event-related potential (ERP) components reflect summed electrical activity (post-synaptic potentials) from a huge number of pyramidal cells, recorded remotely from the scalp (to put it simply). The polarity of these components (i.e., positive or negative) does not indicate whether they are excitatory or inhibitory.

Where were these Shakespeare ERP results published?? According to the UPI story, the study appeared in The Reader, a literary magazine (although I couldn't find it...).

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At December 27, 2006 6:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, just wow. Interpreting the P600 as some sort of wave of excitation is indeed...embarrassing. I'll have to check up more on this!

At December 27, 2006 11:18 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Yes, a bit of a blunder...

And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.
William Shakespeare

This quote is good for three N400s (semantic anomalies).


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