Your Brain on Poetry

Scientists at the University of Exeter are exploring the ways in which the human brain responds to poetry as opposed to prose. The new brain imaging technology, called “art functional magnetic resonance imaging,” or fMRI, enables researchers to identify the sectors of the brain stimulated in response to activities such as reading poetry. This experiment is the first of its kind, as no previous studies have been conducted to differentiate brain response to poetry in comparison to prose.

The research team compiled data that suggests poetry stimulated the brain in areas that prose did not, particularly in areas such as “the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection,” according to Medical Xpress.

The scientists’ full findings have been published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies and report that the study located a “reading network” in the brain, which activates in response to text. Interestingly, researchers noted that not all responses to text were the same, however. Dramatic texts and texts that rely heavily on a reader’s emotional response stimulated the “reading network”; however, areas of the brain typically found to respond to music were also activated by emotionally-charged words. And that’s not all. When participants in the study were asked to read a favorite passage of poetry, results showed that areas of the brain primarily associated with memory were strongly stimulated.

The study consisted of 13 faculty and students from the English Department who volunteered for participation. Cognitive Neurologist from the University of Exeter’s Medical School, Adam Zeman, headed the study and compared brain activity scans from volunteers who read literal prose to those who read more expressive selections from novels and poetry. According to Professor Zeman, “Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art.”

–Melinda Wilson