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<i>Bard on the Brain</i>: Connecting Shakespeare With Modern Brain Science - 2003-04-13


This month (April 23) marks the 439th birth anniversary of the great English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plays and sonnets have long been considered without equal in the richness of their language and ability to examine the complexity of the human condition. And now a new book has been published that suggests that Shakespeare's understanding of human behavior may have been the precursor in the study of neurology, the science of the brain. Robin Rupli talked with one of the authors of "Bard On The Brain: Understanding the Mind Through the Art of Shakespeare and the Science of Brain Imaging."

At a recent reception in Washington, D.C. for the publication of Bard on the Brain, several actors presented examples of some of the themes from the works of William Shakespeare such as power, love, family, treachery, addiction and depression themes that resonate as much today as they did when they were written four centuries ago.

Neuroscientist Paul Matthews, who collaborated with Shakespeare scholar Jeffrey McQuain on the book, Bard on the Brain, says many of the psychological processes in Shakespeare's dramas can be connected to the theories made by modern brain scientists. "What we're doing now with the new techniques in what is called cognitive neuroscience, or the brain science of thinking, is not just ask how it is that the brain responds to light, or how it is that the brain makes a finger move, but how it is that the brain perceives the broader pictures in the world. How it is that we generate the desire to move, how it is that we feel emotions, love, anger, hate, and so on. These are the same questions that Shakespeare was interested in. And so what we're really seeing now is how these two ideas, or two approaches the approach of art and the approach of science, [connect] to the common problems of understanding how we act the way we do," he says.

When the neuroscientist re-read Shakespeare, he found specific passages where the dramatist addressed specific emotions and behavior such as Hamlet, whose inability to make up his mind leads to depression; or Orsino, the Duke in Twelfth Night, who is so lovesick he is delusional.

And Falstaff, whose character lives to drink and carouse, might be an example of the need for instant gratification.

"I've always been concerned at the notion that two cultures have developed in our modern world a culture of science and a culture of art," says Mr. Matthews. "And there seems to be precious few connections between them."

In the book, Bard on the Brain, neuroscientist Paul Matthews and Shakespeare scholar Jeffrey McQuain have produced a colorful, photographic book that they hope will make science, and Shakespeare, more accessible to a mainstream public.

Dr. Matthews says he has seen a trend among authors who use art as a means of communicating scientific theory, as well as scientists who are beginning to present their findings in a more literary way. "Oliver Sacks who has always been a great favorite of mine uses literature to illuminate his medical experience in order to make neuroscience come alive. Jonathan Miller in the UK, who has distinguished himself as someone who has a foot in both cultures he is a director of opera, of the theater, an actor, as well as a qualified doctor. But I think one of the things that I am immensely encouraged by is that more and more we're seeing scientists who are also taking the responsibility to communicate clearly and concisely with the public and are having to adopt a more literary approach in their own right. So I think that a lot of people are moving in both directions now," he says.

William Shakespeare never thought of himself as a scientist and would probably have been astonished to think that four hundred years after his death, his works were being lauded as a template for psychoanalytic study and neuroscience. He was simply a keen observer of human behavior and wanted to translate those observations into hit plays that sell.

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