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Verbing youths brains?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  December 19, 2006 10:15 PM

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Maybe using nouns as verbs "weirds language," as "Calvin & Hobbes" famously observed, but according to a new report from the University of Liverpool, it also limbers up the little gray cells - at least when it's Shakespeare who does the verbing.

"Bard boosts brain," "Shakespeare excites brain," and, most implausibly, "Shakespeare used advanced brain theories" say the various headlines on the story, which claims that brain imaging shows how Shakespeare's inventive language stimulates mental activity.

Philip Davis, professor of English at Liverpool, explains:

"It works 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.

"Research has shown that there are parts of the brain that are responsible for the processing of nouns and others for the processing of verbs. . . . If you throw something in that looks like a noun, but is used as a verb, a new level of consciousness might have to be created as they talk to each other.
"For example, Shakespeare uses the phrase, 'he godded me' in the tragedy 'Coriolanus.' Godded looks like a noun, but is a verb and the brain is confused by the anomaly."

Confused in a good way, Davis is certain: "One of the things that makes us dull is simply going back over established pathways."

But wait, there's more:

The research could help stave off old age, claim the researchers, who are conducting more experiments to identify the precise regions of the brains that are involved.

"All's well that ends well," indeed. It's not clear, though, whether verbing nouns is supposed to be good medicine only in great literature, or wherever it turns up. Reading Shakespeare sounds like a fine prescription for mental longevity. But if officing, incentivizing, and solutioning are the brain boosters on offer, some people might prefer oblivion.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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