Use Shakespeare criticism to inspire language processing research in cognitive science

I have a side-track of research in the area of “empirical humanities.” I got to present this abstract recently at a conference called “Cognitive futures in the humanities.”

It might seem self-evident that “the pun … must be noticed as such for it to work its poetic effect.” Joel Fineman says it confidently in his discussion of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 132.” But experimental psychologists have proven that people are affected by literary devices that they did not notice. That is a problem with self-evidence, and it reveals one half of the promise of empirical humanities.

Counterintuition pervades every aspect of language experience. Consider the four versions of the following sentence, and how the semantic connections they highlight could affect conscious recognition of the malapropism at pack: “Parker could not have died by [suicide/cigarettes], as he made a [pact with the devil/pack with the devil] that guaranteed immortal life.” Pack is an error. Cigarette semantically “primes” it, just as suicide primes pact. Will readers be more disturbed by pack when it is primed, or less? Does cigarette disguise pack or make it pop out? Classic theories in cognitive science would argue for the latter, that priming the malapropism will make it more disruptive and harder to miss. But no scientific theory has considered the alternative. I hadn’t myself until I reviewed the self-evidence of Shakespeare scholar Stephen Booth. This is the other half of the promise of empirical humanities. Literary criticism can reveal new possibilities in unquestioned cognitive theories, and inspire new tracks of thought.

After reviewing some lab work in the human mind, and some literary fieldwork there, I will tell you what cigarette does to pack.

It was fun spending a week learning how humanities people think. The experiment is work with Melody Dye and Greg Cox that I was a part of.