This Is Your Brain On Poetry

I know it’s coming, and it still gets me every time. I turn the page of my well-worn Norton Anthology of American Literature and take a deep breath, steeling myself before reading the next stanza.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

I don’t even make it to the second line before it starts. As I read the words on the page, it feels like someone has touched a nerve somewhere on my scalp, causing a wave of prickles to run through my skin, down my arms and legs into my toes and back up again. Images flash through my my mind of a man dropping a sphere of galaxy-speckled space to bounce along the floor, a woman whose immaculately curled hair makes a gentle dent in a satin pillow: unrequited love in a cream-colored sitting room. And then, when I get to the end of the last line, my breath catches in my throat like I’m going over the first, big drop on a rollercoaster, and the words reverberate in my head for a few seconds before finally letting me go.

There’s something about this verse from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that cuts right down to my core. It’s hard to explain exactly what about the poetry triggers it and why simply reading words on a page produces feelings so intense and emotional.

The closest I get is to say that it’s the same way I feel when the melody line of “Nessun Dorma,” the aria from Puccini’s opera Turandot, swells up to its high notes while the orchestra supports it with a lush cloud of secondary harmonies; or in the opening verse of the song “Bright Lights” by Matchbox 20, when the singer’s voice and the piano are the only sounds breaking the silence. The same sensation caused by Eliot’s poem wells up: tingles up and down my spine; holding my breath unconsciously; feeling that I’m experiencing something that far transcends the mere collision of sound waves with my eardrums.

It turns out that describing my reaction to poetry using examples from music might actually be the best way to describe them. A recent study conducted at the University of Exeter has found that reading chill-inducing poetry activates the same areas of the brain that are engaged by music that’s particularly moving. The effect seems to be unique to poetry, too – there is no corresponding response when reading prose, whether didactic (an excerpt from an instruction manual) or creative (the opening lines of a novel).

Of course, there are questions surrounding this research, as it’s the first study to specifically compare brain activation induced by poetry vs. prose. First, is this response to poetry learned or innate? I happen to have been an English major in college, as were all the subjects in the study. Has my brain been “trained” to approach poetry differently than prose, so that the spine-tingling sensation I get when I read certain poems is more likely to occur?

Another question is the relationship between poetry and music. Do our brains produce the same chills because we’re reacting to musical aspects of poetry (rhythm, tone, word choice) that are less emphasized in prose? Or are music and poetry fundamentally different, but both have the ability to activate the same parts of the brain? What is the common denominator that allows them to do that? What about music and poetry that don’t cause chills?

These are the kinds of questions I’m working through in a longer piece that will be published here when it’s ready, exploring the relationship between neuroscience, poetry and music. I’ll be speaking to experts in all three of those areas to learn how neuroscience can help us better understand our seemingly arbitrary addiction to art.

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3 Responses to This Is Your Brain On Poetry

  1. Saba says:

    You should look up Sean Haldene.

  2. Jacinto Davila says:

    You made your point beautifully. But try reading Saramago’s prose.

  3. Jane Porter says:

    I am so moved by the poem and reference to the opera that I fell a swell in my heart of beauty and joy. You make me want to write in my journal again. Thank you for sharing your inquiry into art and neuroscience