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Is the Human Brain Hardwired to Appreciate Poetry?

Summary: A new study reports the brain appears to have an unconscious appreciation of poetic construction.

Source: Frontiers.

In a recent article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Professor Guillaume Thierry and colleagues at Bangor University have demonstrated that we do indeed appear to have an unconscious appreciation of poetic construction.

In 1932 T.S. Eliot famously argued, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

In a recent article published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Professor Guillaume Thierry and colleagues at Bangor University have demonstrated that we do indeed appear to have an unconscious appreciation of poetic construction.

“Poetry”, explains Professor Thierry “is a particular type of literary expression that conveys feelings, thoughts and ideas by accentuating metric constraints, rhyme and alliteration.”

However, can we appreciate the musical sound of poetry independent of its literary meaning?

To address this question the authors created sentence sample sets that either conformed or violated poetic construction rules of Cynghanedd – a traditional form of Welsh poetry. These sentences were randomly presented to study participants; all of whom were native welsh speakers but had no prior knowledge of Cynghanedd poetic form.

Initially participants were asked to rate sentences as either “good” or “not good” depending on whether or not they found them aesthetically pleasing to the ear. The study revealed that the participants’ brains implicitly categorized Cyngahanedd-orthodox sentences as sounding “good” compared to sentences violating its construction rules.

The authors also mapped Event-Related Brain Potential (ERP) in participants a fraction of a second after they heard the final word in a poetic construction. These elegant results reveal an electrophysiological response in the brain when participants were exposed to consonantal repetition and stress patterns that are characteristic of Cynghanedd, but not when such patterns were violated.

Image shows a woman reading a poetry book.

So when you read a poem, if you feel something special but you cannot really pinpoint what it is, make no mistake, your brain loves it even if you don’t really know why. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

Interestingly the positive responses from the brain to Cynghanedd were present even though participants could not explicitly tell which of the sentences were correct and which featured errors of rhythm or sound repetitions.

Professor Thierry concludes, “It is the first time that we show unconscious processing of poetic constructs by the brain, and of course, it is extremely exciting to think that one can inspire the human mind without being noticed!”

So when you read a poem, if you feel something special but you cannot really pinpoint what it is, make no mistake, your brain loves it even if you don’t really know why.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The study was supported by Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, The Gwyneth and D Tecwyn Memorial Endowment, Economic and Social Research Council.

Source: Melissa Cochrane – Frontiers
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Implicit Detection of Poetic Harmony by the Naïve Brain” by Awel Vaughan-Evans, Robat Trefor, Llion Jones, Peredur Lynch, Manon W. Jones and Guillaume Thierry in Frontiers in Psychology. Published online November 26 2016 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01859

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
Frontiers “Is the Human Brain Hardwired to Appreciate Poetry?.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 February 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/neuroscience-poetry-6130/>.
Frontiers (2017, February 18). Is the Human Brain Hardwired to Appreciate Poetry?. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved February 18, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/neuroscience-poetry-6130/
Frontiers “Is the Human Brain Hardwired to Appreciate Poetry?.” http://neurosciencenews.com/neuroscience-poetry-6130/ (accessed February 18, 2017).

Abstract

Implicit Detection of Poetic Harmony by the Naïve Brain

The power of poetry is universally acknowledged, but it is debatable whether its appreciation is reserved for experts. Here, we show that readers with no particular knowledge of a traditional form of Welsh poetry unconsciously distinguish phrases conforming to its complex poetic construction rules from those that violate them. We studied the brain response of native speakers of Welsh as they read meaningful sentences ending in a word that either complied with strict poetic construction rules, violated rules of consonantal repetition, violated stress pattern, or violated both these constraints. Upon reading the last word of each sentence, participants indicated sentence acceptability. As expected, our inexperienced participants did not explicitly distinguish between sentences that conformed to the poetic rules from those that violated them. However, in the case of orthodox sentences, the critical word elicited a distinctive brain response characteristic of target detection –the P3b– as compared to the other conditions, showing that speakers of Welsh with no expertise of this particular form of poetry implicitly detect poetic harmony. These results show for the first time that before we even consider literal meaning, the musical properties of poetry speak to the human mind in ways that escape consciousness.

“Implicit Detection of Poetic Harmony by the Naïve Brain” by Awel Vaughan-Evans, Robat Trefor, Llion Jones, Peredur Lynch, Manon W. Jones and Guillaume Thierry in Frontiers in Psychology. Published online November 26 2016 doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01859

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