fMRI Study Reveals Differences in Brain Response to Poetry and Prose

Oct 11, 2013 by Sci-News.com

Researchers from the University of Exeter, UK, have used the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to map the different ways in which the human brain responds to poetry and prose.

Researchers mapped brain activity when volunteers read poetry and prose. The results show that poetry is like music to the human mind. Image credit: Jens Langner.

Researchers mapped brain activity when volunteers read poetry and prose. The results show that poetry is like music to the human mind. Image credit: Jens Langner.

No one had previously looked specifically at the differing responses in the brain to poetry and prose.

Exeter University scientists found activity in a ‘reading network’ of brain areas which was activated in response to any written material. They also found that more emotionally charged writing aroused several of the regions in the brain which respond to music. These areas, predominantly on the right side of the brain, had previously been shown as to give rise to the shivers down the spine caused by an emotional reaction to music.

In the study, the brain activity of 13 volunteers – all faculty members and senior graduate students in English at Exeter – was scanned and compared when reading literal prose such as an extract from a heating installation manual, evocative passages from novels, easy and difficult sonnets, as well as their favorite poetry.

When volunteers read one of their favorite passages of poetry, the scientists found that areas of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly than ‘reading areas’, indicating that reading a favorite passage is a kind of recollection.

In a specific comparison between poetry and prose, they found evidence that poetry activates brain areas, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to introspection.

“Some people say it is impossible to reconcile science and art, but new brain imaging technology means we are now seeing a growing body of evidence about how the brain responds to the experience of art,” said Prof Adam Zeman, a lead author of the paper published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.

“This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”

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Bibliographic information: Zeman A et al. 2013. By Heart An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose. Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 20, no. 9-10, pp. 132-158