October 21, 2013

Study reveals the neurological differences between poetry and prose



The science and technology hub RedOrbit reported this month on the University of Exeter’s recent study on reading. In his research, Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist at Exeter’s medical school, investigated not only how the human brain processes poetry, but how it processes poetry differently.

Using fMRI technology in order to visualize the brain’s activation, particularly in discrete areas, Zeman found activity in a set collection of areas he calls the brain’s “reading network”—that is, neurological regions stimulated by any and all written materials. Before the study, RedOrbit writer April Flowers points out, “no one had specifically imagined the brain’s differing responses to poetry and prose”; Zeman, however, focused in particular on these differences. In addition to the “reading network” areas activated regardless, he found that additional regions of the brain lit up in response to “more emotionally charged writing.” (This may seem a bit of a subjective judgment, but Zeman was careful to provide a heating installation manual as his subjects’ control reading material, and “evocative passages from novels” as the comparison.) “These regions,” Flowers explains, “are predominantly in the right side and had previously been shown to produce the ‘shivers down the spine’ emotional reaction to music.”

In addition, poetry “was found to activate areas of the brain associated with introspection”—specifically, the posterior cingulated cortex, often associated with particularly human awareness and thought to be “involved in the understanding of others’ beliefs,” and medial temporal lobes, understood to be critical for both declarative and long-term memory storage. (In other words, your brain is stimulated differently by “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” than by 1913.) Though he offered participants both “easy and difficult sonnets” for this portion of the research, Zeman seems to have found little neurological difference between the poems’ comprehension.

Finally, when the volunteers’ brains were scanned while reading “their favorite poetry,” the areas of the brain linked to memory were not only activated, but activated “more strongly” than the reading areas. The process of seeing your favorite poems again is apparently more a process of active recollection than of true re-reading.

Zeman’s research was possible through the collaboration of thirteen volunteers. These were “all faculty members and senior graduate students in English,” however, which may indicate a greater involvement with reading, and particularly poetry, than would be expressed in a more general sample. Nevertheless, the study establishes a baseline for Zeman’s stated aim:

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. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.



Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.