Composers and singer-songwriters often classify their occupation as that of a poet, rather than a musician or entertainer. A new study now suggests that poetry affects areas of the brain in a way akin to music.
Scientists at the University of Exeter used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to map the way the brain responds to poetry and prose.
The technology allows researchers to visualize which parts of the brain are activated to process various activities.
Experts say that this is the first study to specifically track differing responses in the brain to poetry and prose.
Researchers discovered activity in a “reading network” of brain areas which was activated in response to any written material. But they also found that more emotionally charged writing aroused several of the regions in the brain which respond to music.
These areas, predominantly on the right side of the brain, had previously been shown to give rise to the “shivers down the spine” caused by an emotional reaction to music.
The research is published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.
Researchers found that when volunteers read one of their favorite passages of poetry, the areas of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly than “reading areas,” indicating that reading a favorite passage is a kind of recollection.
In a specific comparison between poetry and prose, the team found evidence that poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection.
Adam Zeman, Ph.D., a cognitive neurologist from the University of Exeter Medical School, worked with colleagues to carry out the study on 13 volunteers, all faculty members and senior graduate students in English.
Their brain activity was scanned and compared when reading literal prose such as an extract from a heating installation manual, evocative passages from novels, easy and difficult sonnets, as well as their favorite poetry.
Zeman said: “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.”
Source: University of Exeter