06 March 2017

Your brain loves poets, but may not know it

A Welsh study suggests that people intuitively enjoy poetry, even if they don't understand why.


"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

New research suggests that a love of Shakespeare's sonnets, a Japanese haiku, a Welsh poem – or any other poetry – might be "hardwired" into the human brain.

"It is the first time that we show unconscious processing of poetic constructs by the brain," lead researcher Guillaume Thierry, from Bangor University in Wales, said in a news release from the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Poetry conveys emotion 

Thierry defined poetry as "a particular type of literary expression that conveys feelings, thoughts and ideas by accentuating metric constraints, rhyme and alliteration".

According to the researchers, humans appear to have a subconscious enjoyment of poetry – even if they don't always understand its meaning. That's led scientists to wonder if the brain is hardwired to appreciate literary rhymes and rhythms.

Investigating further, Thierry and his team created sentence samples that followed the rules of a traditional form of Welsh poetry, called Cynghanedd.

They also created samples than did not obey these rules.

All of the sentences were presented to volunteers who were native Welsh speakers but had no previous knowledge of Cynghanedd poetry. The participants were asked to rate the sentences as "good" or "not good" based on how pleasing they were to the ear.

The study found the volunteers typically considered the sentences that conformed to the rules of the Cynghanedd poetry "good" but classified those that violated these rules as "not good".

Is Shakespeare hardwired into your brain?

Event-related brain potential 

Using brain scans, Thierry's groups also mapped what's known as Event-Related Brain Potential (ERP) in the participants' brains, within a fraction of a second of hearing the final words in the sentences.

ERP measures the brain's response to a sensory or intellectually stimulating event.

The researchers observed an electrophysiological response in the brains of those who were exposed to any sentence structure that fit with the repetition of consonants and stress patterns of Cynghanedd poetry. This was true even when the participants were unaware of exactly which words or sentences followed the rules of the poetry and which didn't.

In contrast, these ERP responses weren't seen when the patterns of this type of poetry were not followed, the study said.

According to Thierry, this is the first time researchers have tracked the unconscious reactions of the brain to poetry.

"It is extremely exciting to think that one can inspire the human mind without being noticed!" he said.

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