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The Brain Is Wired To Love Poetry (Even Before It's Understood)


A scientific study shows that the human brain assimilates the music of poetic discourse even before understanding its literal meaning.

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

—T.S.  Eliot

We’ve always known that poetry possesses an immeasurable, mysterious power. Still, for many, such expressions require some other, prior knowledge to be fully understood. But this is not entirely true: reading a powerful lyrical piece can shake your emotions and imagination in many levels. All of this now has an explanation.

A psychologist at the University of Bangor in the United Kingdom, Gillaume Thierry, recently conducted a study that showed scientifically for the first time the way that poetry, more specifically the “musical quality” of poetry, is unconsciously captured by the human brain. This happens even before any literal meaning is assimilated. The implication is that the rhythmic and harmonic properties of poetic discourse will stimulate unconscious parts of the mind. Not only that, but the study also implies the existence (so often described by poets) of a close relationship between intuition and this particular form of art.

Thierry’s study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, recorded the brain’s electrophysiological responses in a group of subjects who were randomly exposed to a traditional Welsh poetic form known as Cynghanedd. All of them were native Welsh speakers who had no knowledge of such poetry. The procedure involved the participants hearing whole sentences from the poem and then indicating whether the segment was acceptable or not (in auditory terms). Without being able to explain the reasons behind their answers, the great majority qualified those sentences that followed the rules of the lyrical form as acceptable.

In general terms, through the study it was understood that the brains of the studied subjects detected when certain repetitions of consonants or vowels in the poem should or should not be there. That is, they anticipated what followed unconsciously, as if the poetic rules were part of an archetypal unconscious. All this took place some seconds before understanding what the words of the poem meant.

During the study, Thierry and his team also studied what’s known in psychology as an “event-related potential,” or the ERP of the participants. This term might be defined as a cerebral response (in physiological terms) to a specific sensory event, in this case, to poetry. Thus, for the subjects the ERP took place just fractions of a second after hearing the last word of the statement, but only when it included the repetitions of consonants and the characteristic accentuation patterns of the Cynghanedd, but not when the fragment did not include those characteristics. It’s curious that the brain responses were observed even when the participants themselves couldn’t identify which fragments followed the rules and which did not, nor which fragments had stimulated them.

“Poetry is a particular type of literary expression that conveys feelings, thoughts, and ideas by accentuating metric constraints, rhyme and alliteration,” Thierry explained. This reflects that, by itself, sound carries an implicit meaning. But the study also points to the inexplicable magic of poetry and reminds us why learning and teaching it is so important. The results of the tests, in the end, indicate that the human mind can be inspired and stimulated, even when the source of the stimulus is unknown. And that explains why our brains love poetry, even before we can explain why.




Image: Reading a Letter from the Front, Takeuchi Keishu. Public Domain.

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