Squeezing the Universe into a Ball: Poetry and Meaning

“How are you feeling?” asked the doctor. His patient was suffering from semantic dementia, a condition in which damage to part of the brain’s temporal lobe disrupts the connection between words and their meanings. Her vocabulary had been reduced to just 3,000-4,000 words, fewer than what a four-year-old can use (the average adult English speaker knows 20,000–35,000).

She was a widow, her husband having passed away not long before, and lived by herself.  Answering the doctor’s simple question was a difficult task; she had no words to express abstract concepts like being alone. After a few moments she was able to respond, “Well, when I am at my place, it’s only me and the place.”

The doctor, Thomas Bak, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh and founder of the Cambridge International Poetry Club, called it “one of the most beautiful descriptions of loneliness I have ever heard.” His patient’s lack of vocabulary didn’t prevent her from expressing what she wanted to say; instead, the simplicity of the words she chose struck him as more powerful, even poetic.

Bak’s patient obviously wasn’t trying to create poetry when she arranged the few words she knew into the closest approximation of how she was feeling, but he reacted to them as he would to poetry because she used the words in an unusual way. “In poetry, you try to condense the meaning into what is really crucial,” he says. “You can express something with very few words but high density of meaning,” which is not the normal way we exchange information. “In prose you expect the word to be what it is, but in poetry you examine the connection of words in a different manner.”

Thanks to medical cases like this, scientists are beginning to understand how human brains understand, react to and produce language. The area of the brain that’s affected by semantic dementia, for example, also appears to be involved in how we learn foreign languages. If you compare the brain activity of a highly bilingual person speaking their second language to someone whose foreign language skills aren’t as strong, the more linguistically adept person has greater activation in that area of the brain. This suggests that the more familiar we are with a language, the more easily we make connections between words and their meanings.

It is these same connections that are challenged when we read poetry as opposed to prose. Poems require us to critically examine words whose meanings we often take for granted, and the altered significance of those words could contribute to the strong emotions we feel when poetry induces the chills of pleasure I described in my last post.

But it’s not just poetry that does this; emotional chills were first investigated scientifically with regard to music. So words imbued with deeper meaning clearly can’t be the only thing that causes those chills. The common denominator between the music and poetry, says Adam Zeman of the University of Exeter, is that they “evoke emotional landscapes,” allowing us to experience emotions outside their normal setting.

Sitting in a chair in a dark room isn’t the most interesting way to spend your Saturday night, but add an orchestra and you immediately get an emotionally charged, enjoyable evening. Reading words on a page doesn’t seem like a depressing activity, but many of us have, at one time or another, read a poem we found to be heartbreaking. Regardless of whether emotions are caused by the meaning of words or the sound of a chord, they are one of the most compelling things about art, and possibly what drives us to create things like poetry and music.

At the end of the day, says Zeman, “we make these things because they move us as they do.” We like the chills we get when reading that perfectly crafted phrase or hearing that arpeggio, so we create different forms of art that will elicit that reaction. Does this mean we’re no more advanced than lab rats who learn to inject themselves with pleasure-inducing drugs like cocaine? Perhaps not at a fundamental level, but I like to think there’s something distinctly human about the chills I get when I hear “When I am at my place, it’s just me and the place.” Try asking a rat how that phrase makes it feel. I doubt it will look up from eating its cheese.

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