Why Reading Poetry Is Good For Your Brain

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Here's Where Your Next Trip Should Be, Based On Your Zodiac Sign

If you've been craving a vacation, now is a good time to take the plunge. According to data collected by travel site Expedia, late winters and early spring are pretty much the best times of the year to go on vacation. Based on average airfare ticket …
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

Bustle's Editors On Jennifer Aniston + Adam Rippon

We've made it to Friday! It's been a pretty hectic week, and the news that Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux are splitting up might have put a damper on your weekend. But, if like many people you have Monday off, hopefully you can sit back and enjo…
By Rachel Simon

This Timeline Of Justin Theroux & Jennifer Aniston's Relationship Will Break Your Heart All Over Again

Just one day after Valentine's Day, actors Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux announced their breakup after seven years together. The celebrity couple, who were married for two-and-half years, separated quietly at the end of last year. This week, th…
By Priscilla Totiyapungprasert

19 Things Your Parents Told You Were Illegal In The '90s

Kids say — and think — the darnedest things. We have overactive imaginations, adults like to mess with us, and we don't always understand everything we hear. That's why some kids call strawberries "straw babies" — a boo-boo so adorable, you don't eve…
By Megan Grant

Why Uggs Are Never Going Away, Whether You Like Them Or Not

Uggs. The word alone can conjure up memories of teenage years, regrettable outfits, and undeniable comfort. But if, like me, you thought that you've already said goodbye to those fleece-lined tan boots, you can think again. It seems fashion has adopt…
By Lauren Sharkey

I Never Want To Write This Essay Again

I don't know where you were when you heard about Wednesday's high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I don't know what you were doing, or how you tried to process the news. I do know this: you thought to yourself, not again. And yet, again. Of cou…
By Jenny Hollander

Netflix's New Romantic Movie Will Have You Crying Like It's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Cancer movies are a heartbreaking staple of Hollywood and have been for decades. It's almost a law of nature: new year, new cancer movie. This year, it's Netflix's Irreplaceable You, a heartbreaking original about a longtime couple who get thrown for…
By Olivia Truffaut-Wong

A Study Suggests Drinking Soda Can Affect Your Fertility — But Don’t Freak Out Just Yet

An awful lot of things can affect fecundability — that is, the probability of conceiving within a single menstrual cycle — but can soda really decrease your chances of getting pregnant? A new study suggests that it might, although it turns out that t…
By Lucia Peters

Here Are All The Terms You Need To Know If You’re Watching Olympic Ski Events Right Now

Every four years the Winter Olympics rolls around to remind me that A) there are so many important Winter Olympic sports, and B) I know virtually nothing any of them. And I know for a fact, I'm not alone, I bet most people don't know what the differe…
By Danielle Colin-Thome

Money Actually CAN Buy Happiness — And Science Figured Out Exactly How Much It Costs

You’ve probably heard the saying “Money can’t buy happiness.” Personally, I’d be more than willing to test out that hypothesis myself, but researchers at Purdue University beat me to it. Researchers found that there is an actual amount of money it ta…
By Katie Mitchell

Kate Middleton Made Sales Of This $1 Secret Accessory Spike & She'll Turn You Into A Believer

There's a royal epidemic going on, people. It's one that causes any and everyone to obsess over the royal family's wardrobe and beauty routines, even if it means breaking the bank to look like them. So a frenzy was expected when Kate Middleton report…
By Summer Arlexis

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu Have Matching Tattoos & The Story Is So Cute

Olympic season gives people the feels. From those shipping Canadian ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to Shaun White's gold medal win on Tuesday, the feels are real. Now, there's another reason to get all up in your emotions. Adam Rippon a…
By Shea Simmons

A New Study Says Being In A Relationship Could Change Your Taste In Wine — Here's How

I’d be willing to bet that for many of you, a nice bottle of wine is awaiting you in your near future — and if you’re planning on sharing that bottle with a partner, there might be more to your choice than meets the eye: According to recent research,…
By Lucia Peters

Carrie Brownstein On Why Even The Obama Era Should Have Enraged You

An icy January morning soon after Hollywood's show of solidarity for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes and almost exactly one year into the Trump Administration feels like a momentous time to be sitting across from Carrie Brownstein. The Sleat…
By Samantha Rollins

Here’s What The Upcoming Year Of The Dog Means For Your Chinese Zodiac Sign

On Feb. 16 the world will celebrate the Chinese New Year, welcoming the Year of the Dog in like the good doggo it is — we hope. A new year means new zodiac predictions for the 365 days ahead. So, what does the Year of the Dog mean for your Chinese zo…
By Brittany Bennett

7 Signs You're Ready To Get Into A Relationship, According To Experts

It can be difficult to tell when you're ready to start dating again. Maybe you're coming off of a bad breakup, maybe you've just been focused on other things. And, ironically, one of the signs that you're ready to be in a relationship is that you're …
By Lea Rose Emery

I Got A Breast Reduction & It Was About So Much More Than The Size Of My Boobs

As a young teenager, I pretty much reached peak physical maturity overnight. One day I was wearing my first training bra a la Lizzie McGuire, and the next I was sweatily fumbling around a Victoria’s Secret with 32DD boobs, trying to summon up the cou…
By Sierra Taylor Horton

This Is, Hands Down, The *Grossest* Thing Babies Do Inside The Womb

Your baby's life in the womb may be safe and warm, but it's also kind of grody. Seriously, the whole process of growing into a human being includes more than a few icky moments along the way. But this is the grossest thing babies do inside the womb b…
via Romper

The 15 Best Fiction Books Of February Feature Tons Of Extraordinary Women

When the cold winds of February blow in, there's nothing I want more than to hide under my covers with a good book. Luckily, there's more than a few fantastic new fiction books coming out this month, so the only tough decision you'll have to make is …
By Melissa Ragsdale

These 10 Drugstore Red Lipsticks Are Under $10 & Actually *Amazing*

I adore makeup. There are few things I like more than getting myself fancied up in the mornings. It's a little ritual I get to do every day that makes me feel prettier and more put together. When my makeup is on, I'm ready to face the world — pun int…
via Romper

17 Moms Reveal The Most Disgusting Part Of Their Pregnancy

Pregnant bodies do weird-ass things. Weird-ass, gross things. I mean, my pregnant body did (twice), and I have long-suspected I'm not alone. So I asked other moms to share the most disgusting part of their pregnancy and I learned that, not only am I …
via Romper