Monday 13 January 2014

Poetry on the brain

How are we affected by poetry, by evocative prose, and by more ordinary prose? Adam Zeman and his colleagues (Zeman et al., 2013) of the University of Exeter have sought to answer this question using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

Zeman et al. studied fMRI scans of 13 right-handed volunteers from Exeter University’s School of English: 10 faculty members, a post-doc, and two advanced graduate students. The researchers selected 16 brief prose passages (some evocative, for instance from fiction, and some functional), 16 sonnets (some accessible and some difficult), and 8 poems that were self-selected (by the participants). Participants each took part in eight blocks of 5 trials in the fMRI scanner. In each trial they read one of the 40 passages of poetry or prose that had been chosen. The passages were presented in random order, and between them a distractor task was introduced to prevent participants thinking about what they had just read. Outside the scanner participants made ratings of what they had read.

The results were that, as well as activating brain areas concerned with reading, texts that the researchers describe as more emotionally charged also activated areas that are usually associated with music. Literary texts were better at activating left-sided regions of the brain. Poetry chosen by the experimenters tended to activate areas associated with introspection, whereas self-selected poetry tended to activate areas concerned with memory.

As compared with expository writing, Mar, Oatley and Eng (2003) found that narrative is better at prompting personal memories but, according to Zeman et al’s study, poetry that is familiar seems to be better still. The study adds a modern touch to Keats’s idea that poetry should be “almost a remembrance” (Keats, 1816-1820).

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Gustave Flaubert proposed that the genre of the novel was only just being developed and that it:
. . . would be as rhythmical as verse, as precise as the language of science, and with the undulations, the humming of a cello, the plumes of fire, a style that would enter your mind like a rapier thrust, and on which finally your thoughts would slide as if over asmooth surface . . . (Williams, 2004, p. 167).
One conclusion from Zeman’s et al’s study, depicted in the graph above, is that even when it is selected to be evocative, by no means all prose achieves these characteristics.

Keats, J. (1816-20). Selected poems and letters of Keats (Ed. D  Bush). New York: Houghton Mifflin (current edition 1959).

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., & Eng, A. (2003). Abstraction and the vividness of details in fiction. Paper presented at the Symposium on Models and Mechanisms of Narrative Persuasion, American Psychological Association Annual Convention, Toronto.

Williams, T. (2004). The writing process: scenarios, sketches and rough drafts. In T. Unwin (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Flaubert (pp. 165-179). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Zeman, A., Milton, F., Smith, A., & Rylance, R. (2013). By heart: An fMRI study of brain activation by poetry and prose. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, 132-158.

Image: Figure 1 from Zeman et al.’s paper, of participants’ ratings of the emotionality, familiarity, and literariness, of the texts they read in the fMRI machine. 
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