The Shakespeare Cortex

Richard J.S. Wise and Rodrigo M. Braga, ‘Default Mode Network: The Seat of Literary Creativity?’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14 (2014), 116-17.

If they’re going to mention Shakespeare in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, then the chances are I am going to write about it. Here is what Wise and Braga say:

There is a longstanding and often ill-tempered debate about whether Shakespeare actually wrote, singly or as a co-author, the 37 plays attributed to him. It is argued that only a well-travelled Tudor aristocrat, versed in the ways of courtly love, would have had the experiences to write the histories, tragedies, and romantic comedies attributed to Shakespeare. Now we can speculate that some background reading and curiosity about the motivations of others, coupled with a spectacularly well-connected DMN, made the bard immortal despite his humble origins.

Some people doubt that the Stratford-born actor wrote the works that carry his name. I have never found the reasons for that doubt, let alone the suggestions for an alternative author, at all convincing. Wise and Braga argue that if doubters understood the brain properly they would find it easier to believe that Shakespeare could have exhibited such extraordinary intellectual resourcefulness.

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The ‘Default Mode Network’ in the brain (DMN) appears to develop over the course of childhood. It is a group of regions in the brain that are most active when the brain is not engaged in the outside world. They help with memory, introspection, mind-reading, daydreaming (‘mind-wandering’, a former topic on this blog), imagining the future, and other hypotheticals. It is involved in creating as well as understanding narratives.

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Wise and Braga bring together evidence for the rich, dynamic interconnectedness of the DMN. They argue that such a system in the brain, receptive to a wide variety of sensory information and liable to rethink and reprocess it over time, is just the sort of mechanism that could explain creativity. Not all DMNs are equal, and a particularly good one could make up for any deficit in education or experience. Although their findings won’t make a decisive intervention into the authorship debate, they do make sense to me. I like the idea of artistic genius as a kind of network, where making and processing the connections between things is a defining characteristic.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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