Why Reading Poetry Is Good For Your Brain
by JR Thorpe
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Get out your Emily Dickinson and brush off your Sylvia Plath: it's National Poetry Month. In between appreciating your favorite poets, though, you may want to consider another way poetry can light up your life: it can help your brain. Yup — verse can have a neurological impact on us, and the details may make you want to break out the Shakespeare (even if you haven't looked at poetry since high school).

Trying to define poetry is an extremely difficult thing to do, and one that would likely get me yelled at if I attempted it (though many famous names have provided their own definitions). But it's one of the most ancient of linguistic structures; from the extended recited verses of Homer to the haiku of Japan, it's sprung up and evolved in countless manifestations.

So why are we drawn to it, and — here's the rub — why is it actually good for us? The answers are complex, and require a little unpacking, with or without rhyming meter.

Our Brains React To Poetry The Same Way They React To Music

Groundbreaking research from the University of Exeter in 2013 revealed something pretty spectacular: there are major commonalities between the way our brains process music and how they process poetry. I've talked about the musical brain before, particularly the ways in which music creates serious emotional response by triggering activity in the brain's emotional centers. And that property, it seems, isn't restricted to music — it's also found in emotional writing, particularly poetry.

The 2013 study was a small one with a limited number of subjects: 13 people, all with degrees in English Literature or professorships at Exeter. (This means that the results may not reflect innate responses in the brain, but "trained" activity that comes as a result of a lot of exposure to poetry and fluency in its meanings and emotional vocabulary.) Given MRIs while they read a variety of texts, from bland rulebooks to fictional prose to familiar and unfamiliar poetry, their brains exhibited some intriguing things.

One was that they showed strong emotional responses to poetry that they had self-selected as meaningful, activating the same parts of the brain that well-loved music does. And their brains didn't demonstrate that response when exposed to any other type of writing.

The brains in this study also showed a particular response to poetry that was tied to the brain "at rest," when it contemplates the past and daydreams — the actions of introspection, in other words. This means that reading poetry also provides space for self-reflection.

Why this is remains open for interpretation. Do we respond to poetry in particular ways because it's more emotionally intense, or because we have an innate human response to rhythms and sound? Is the idea of poetry as a space for deep thinking culturally created, or just part of how we respond naturally? It's all very intriguing.

Are Our Brains Hardwired To Love Poetry?

How the brain responds to poetry is one thing. But why it responds in this way is another — and scientists have been attempting to find an answer for quite some time. Is it a product of being taught that poetry is a respected cultural form, or is it something else?

Revelations like the discovery that full-term fetuses increase their heart rates when they hear their mothers reciting poetry suggest that perhaps there's something inherent in the human brain that responds to poetic sounds (though that particular study was more about proving that full-term fetuses respond to their mother's voices than showing the power of poetry). And a 2017 study indicates that even if haven't been taught about poetry, we seem to respond positively to it.

The scientists behind the 2017 study produced an unusual experiment. There's a traditional form of Welsh-language poetry called cynghanedd that has very strict rules about verse form and rhyming in single lines. They collected volunteers who spoke Welsh but had no knowledge of cynghanedd, and presented them with sentences, some of which obeyed the rules of cynghanedd and others that violated them in some way. When the sentences fit the rules perfectly, the volunteers' brains showed pleasure, and when they somehow departed from the mold, their brains were less keen on the words — even if they themselves weren't able to articulate what was going on or how they felt about the sentences.

What exactly this proves is unclear. Human love for order and patterns may show through in our reactions to language, even if we ourselves don't have any background in understanding the specifics of poetry. (This is also likely why we respond so strongly to lyric and rap.) Modern poetry, though, often doesn't use a lot of patterning, and it remains to be seen whether people's brains appreciate the slightly weird, fractured patterns of, say, Anne Carson's poetry in the same natural way.

Reading Poetry Influences Our Memories And Language

Aside from the emotional weight of poetry, its tendency to push at the boundaries of language — to play with meaning and sound — may also create a unique response in the brain. "It is the poets that preserve the languages," Samuel Johnson wrote, but the act of reading poetry may actually do more than keep us aware of the full breadth of our language. It seems, according to a new school of research coming out of brain science, that its experimentation and difficulty can actually help our brains.

A 2006 study that observed brains as they reacted to the works of Shakespeare found that Shakespeare's inclination to verbal trickiness — from pun-making to taking nouns and making them into verbs — creates a physical response in the brain in which it attempts to understand the linguistic problem being posed. Keeping the brain stimulated and creating such peaks in brain function are likely to be good for overall cognitive health — a conclusion supported by 2013 research by scientists from the University of Liverpool, who looked at neural responses to challenging prose and poetry. They took texts from Shakespeare, Wordsworth and others, and allowed subjects to read them in two forms, the original and a "translated" version that made them clearer. The trickier the text, the more intense the reaction from the language centers of the brain as they attempted to attune to its meaning.

But that wasn't the end of the 2013 study's discoveries. They also noted that, in response to poetry, brain regions related to autobiographical, personal memory were likely to light up, reflecting either personal history with the poem in question or a tendency for poetry to create self-reflection, or both. For better brain health and more emotional connection to your memories, it seems, poetry might be a good way forward.