Science Shows Something Surprising About What Reading Poetry Does to Your Brain
Whether you grew up reading Where the Sidewalk Ends or you spend your morning commute mulling over Maya Angelou, poetry has probably played some part in your life outside of high school English.
Poetry can be uplifting, showcasing the beauty of nature. It can be be dark, painting the corners of the human psyche we all know but may not discuss. Powerful, light, confusing — emotionally, poetry can do a lot of things.
Researchers at the University of Exeter have found that there's science behind poetry's effect on the brain. We know about music's effect on the body, but these researchers looked specifically at the different responses the brain has to poetry and prose.
Here were the findings:
1. Poetry and music thrill you in the same way.
The researchers found that reading poetry stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, which includes regions that also tend to respond to music. Incidentally, these regions can cause shivers down the spine, linking both music and poetry to reward and emotion.
It's not just about feelings, though: Other work has also shown that unfamiliar and complex words in Shakespeare's works help boost the brain.
2. Poetry stimulates areas of the brain linked to memory.
There's a "reading network" of brain areas that lights up whenever we interact with written material. In the Exeter study, 13 volunteers read an "extract from a heating installation manual, evocative passages from novels [and] easy and difficult sonnets, as well as their favorite poetry." Regions of the brain linked to memory showed more activity than the general reading network while reading poetry.
Lead researcher Adam Zeman wrote in an email to Mic, "This was true specifically for 'favorite poems' of which each participant chose one — so very much a function of deep familiarity (the participants were all English lecturers or similar, so poems mattered to them!)."
3. Poetry makes people self-reflect more.
Reading poetry helps us chill out and figure ourselves out. Researchers found that it stimulates the parts of the brain linked to our resting states, the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes. Those are part of a network of brain regions that are active when someone is just sitting and relaxing, and have also been linked to introspection.
Zeman hopes further research will confirm this finding, since the participants in this study self-selected as poetry lovers. "I would regard this as a tentative finding, because, for example, it's possible that people found reading poetry less effortful, hence more restful ... so more work is needed to explore this finding," he said.
Poetry MFAs, you're in luck. You can finally put some science behind defending your academic pursuits.