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The bard on the brain—understanding the mind through the art of Shakespeare and the science of brain imaging
  1. C Butler

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    Paul M Matthews, Jeffrey McQuain. New York: The Dana Press 2003, pp 222, £24.50. ISBN 0-9723830-2-6

    One of the great challenges of popular science writing is to convey a coherent and consistent impression of scientific ideas while avoiding confusing, specialist terminology. The most useful tools for this task are metaphor and pictures. The Dana Press, publisher for the Charles A Dana Foundation, has as its mandate “the provision of information about the personal and public benefits of brain research”. With The bard on the brain, they have chosen to use the voice of William Shakespeare, the master craftsman of metaphor, to introduce the areas of human cognition that have attracted the most attention in recent functional imaging research. The logic behind this approach is that, as the authors explain, “Shakespeare’s genius derives from his keen insight into the human mind” and that, in functional imaging, “brain scientists finally have the means to address questions that Shakespeare so eloquently put forward four centuries ago”.

    The book is a play in seven acts, each of which tackles a different field of research in cognitive neuroscience, including perception, language, the inner world of memory and emotions, and the breakdown of the mind in certain neuropsychiatric disorders. Within these acts, each scene examines a particular feature of the mind and illustrates how Shakespeare dissected and explored it in his own laboratory—the theatre. The scene opens with a quotation from a chosen play and a brief synopsis of the plot before moving on to discuss the hard neuroscience underlying this cognitive phenomenon as revealed by the latest neuroimaging techniques. For example, in discussing the role of the frontal lobes in attention shifting and the planning of behaviour, the example is chosen of Prince Hal, the wayward, youthful heir of Henry IV who purposely turns from the influence of Sir John Falstaff and his frivolous drinking companions in order to develop the resolve and strength of character which will later serve him well as King Henry V. This transformation is compared with the case of Phineas Gage, the 19th century rail worker who survived a dramatic penetrating injury to his cranium but consequently displayed a remarkable alteration in his personality. Recent computed tomography reconstructions of Gage’s skull by Hannah and Antonio Damasio have clearly delineated the passage of the three foot tamping iron through the frontal cortex—the area “responsible for the functioning of what we call a moral sense”.

    The concept is an entertaining one and the authors have worked hard to bring it to life. The target audience presumably consists of people with no specialist knowledge of either Shakespeare or neurology and, if this is so, the reader will find plenty to hold his or her interest. The rich neuroscientific tableau ranges from Chomsky and language to the functional imaging of hallucinatory experience in schizophrenia, while the bite-sized chunks of Shakespeare successfully convey the bard’s penetrating insight into the human psyche. The suggestion is that scientists, too, need to step outside the laboratory to find inspiration for their hypotheses. Lavish illustration with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), positron emission tomography, and single photon emission computerised tomography images, alongside numerous performance photos from well known theatre companies, give the book an enticing, coffee table appeal.

    However, the book suffers from the contortions undergone in order to link the Shakespearian poetry to the scientific project. Take, for example, the use of Macbeth’s grasping at an illusory dagger to introduce a discussion of the cerebellar control of complex motor acts, or the soliloquy from Hamlet’s murderous uncle, Claudius, which begins “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven” as a cue to show fMRI pictures of “areas of the brain that become active with smell”. In addition, the simplistic, rather than simplified, portrayal of functional imaging is coupled with brain images that are often unlabelled and poorly explained, giving the impression of a gaudy backdrop used to distract from an empty plot. The inherent danger in this approach is that, instead of facilitating public understanding of neuroscience, an aura of charmed infallibility is created. A brief mention of some of the limitations of functional imaging techniques would have helped to avoid this pitfall.

    On balance, where this book succeeds, it does so due to the infectious enthusiasm of the authors. The tortuous metaphors and fancy pictures do not help much. Dialogue between science and literature has come a long way since CP Snow gave his famous Rede Lecture on the two cultures in 1950. Non-scientists are devouring popular science books—perhaps scientists need to reciprocate the attention. The Bard on the brain could certainly be instrumental in encouraging us to get to the theatre more often.