May 18, 2017

Science has now proved that poetry gives us the feels


Frontispiece from William Blake’s The Song of Los

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
(Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire)

A splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning
(William Carlos Williams, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus)

Jenny, your mind commands
kingdoms of black and white
(Lisel MuellerReading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny)


I’ve always been able to remember certain lines of poetry — words that, once read, imprinted themselves onto my brain without my even trying to remember them. And beyond that, poems that have literally made me shiver, or cry, or tingle, or sob, or reach for my favorite teddy bear to help contain the feelings. (I’m looking at you, Kenneth Koch).

For anyone out there like me, we can rest assured that science has our back. A recent study by a quintet of German and Norwegian researchers, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, makes the claim that poetry, when we hear it read aloud, elicits emotional, physical, and neurological responses not too dissimilar from those produced by music. Said another way, poetry can make the hair rise on the back of your neck, and now we can prove it.

Cody Delistraty at New York explains that the study “asked groups of mostly female German speakers in their mid-20s—some of whom were frequent poetry readers, and some of whom described themselves as novices—to listen to poetry read out loud.” Then, with their subjects hooked up to a number of instruments, including one called a goosecam that measures the movement of hair follicles on skin, the researchers collected data on how the body responded. Delistraty goes on to summarize the results:

Every person claimed to have felt chills at some point during the process, and about 40 percent showed visible goose bumps — a percentage that lines up with the responses most people have when listening to music and film soundtracks or watching emotional scenes in movies. Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry… The authors also found evidence to support the idea of poetry’s pleasure as a slow-building experience, or what they called a “pre-chill”: While listening to poems they found particularly evocative, the listeners subconsciously anticipated the coming emotional arousal in a way that was neurologically similar to the reward anticipation one might get from, for instance, unwrapping a chocolate bar.

The frisson resulting in goosebumps may not surprise you, but the “pre-chill” anticipation of emotional response raises many questions, the most basic of which is whether we are preparing ourselves for an emotional drop, or if the poem itself is preparing us for what’s to come. The study does note that the majority of these anticipations occur leading up to natural cadences, which points to a structural impact. But having so many times been struck by a line that jumps out of the texture like a rat scurrying from behind a dumpster when I’m walking home intoxicated at 2am (probably not the best analogy, but still), I wonder if we can sense something that isn’t always there in the poem, something personal that resonates with each reader singularly.

Future science will have to take this up. Or future poets. Or future poet-scientists.

In the meantime, I’d recommend reading this interview with Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and the Emmissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, if you want to sink your teeth into more of the science of our brains and poetry.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.