I always seek to break the news gently, but it can be disconcerting to some folks when I reveal that the two brains in history intriguing me most are Shakespeare’s and Jesus Christ’s, in that order.

Neither choice is by any means unique, and the subject of Jesus’s brain is probably the most enigmatic. What can you really think about a brain that supposedly was both a man’s and a god’s, dually occupied at the same time? Bertrand Russell thought the man suffered from schizophrenia, but Schweitzer, summoned to the truths he saw in the man’s life, argued otherwise. Psychologist Jay Haley thought the Nazarean carpenter is best understood as a master political strategist whose mind, above all, excelled at using complex power tactics to flummox and stalemate his enemies.

I’m not sure that were a small group of us to sit down to dinner with the Godspell character himself that we’d really understand how things worked inside his cranium, so that’s why I list him second. And putting J.C. Superstar second is what upsets my fundamentalist Christian friends, so I rush to assure them that I do so only because with Shakespeare, I think we’d have a better chance of coming away with more insight than heart burn.

I once happened on a book whose author shares my interest in Shakespeare’s brain and isn’t waiting on a chance dinner party encounter in some future time-warp to take the subject on. Diane Ackerman has an entire chapter in her book, An Alchemy of Mind (Scribner softcover, 2004), speculating about how the bard’s brain functioned. She opines, “Something about his brain was gloriously different.”

For example, Ackerman recalls his abilities to squeeze the most precise qualities from word combinations. Like when he described a kiss as “comfortless/As frozen water to a starved snake.” Or when his King Lear, in deep grief over Cordelia’s death, utters, “Never, never, never, never, never.” (Such feats and usages of the language led the editors of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to devote more than 60 pages to Shakespeare, Ackerman observes). Such precisely feelings-capturing word pictures suffuse his works, of course. “He must have … possessed a remarkable general memory, the ability to obsess for long periods of time, a superb gift for focusing his mind in the midst of commotion, quick access to word and sense memories to use in imagery, a brain open to novelty and new ideas,” she writes. And that’s just for starters.

Eventually, she asks one of two questions I’d most love to put to a large list of personages who have distinguished themselves down through the mists of time. Did Shakespeare know how different he was? Her conclusion: probably so. How alien. How “more of everything.” If scientists could study his brain today, she wonders if they’d find his brain bushy, somehow having foregone all the natural pruning away of neuronal connections that occurs in a “normal” brain.

Ackerman doesn’t see any usefulness in viewing Shakespeare as a god. “If anything, he risked being more human than most. Because he was a natural wonder,” she finishes.

It’s a beautiful chapter in a really well-done book. And her concluding thoughts about Shakespeare fit well with the second question I’d like to put to each of the great personages selected from “the bank and shoal of time” (Shakespeare again): What do you think this universe is really about? If there is a god in the group, then we should be in for a memorable evening although I can’t shake the thought that we’d probably end up learning more from Shakespeare’s reply than anyone else’s.

You can latch onto a bargain-priced copy of Ackerman’s book by going here. Haley’s fascinating arguments, by the way, are in his book: The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ and Other Essays); go here.
The above commentary has appeared in a blog on another of my websites. I’m choosing to recycle it here because I think the points it makes are fascinating and important.

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