Researchers at the University of Exeter have been bridging the gap between art and science by mapping the different ways in which the brain responds to poetry and prose. The team used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to visual how the brain activates certain regions to process various activities.
Before this study, no one had specifically examined the brain’s differing responses to poetry and prose. The results, published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, revealed activity within a “reading network” of brain regions that were activated in response to any written material.
The team also found that emotionally charged writing activated areas of the brain which are known to respond to music. Predominantly on the right side, these regions had previously been shown to give rise to the “shivers down the spine” feeling caused by an emotional response to music.
The researchers found that when study participants read one of their favorite passages of poetry, regions of the brain associated with memory were stimulated more strongly than “reading areas.” This suggests that reading a favorite passage is like a recollection.
When the team specifically compared poetry to prose, they found evidence that poetry activates brain regions associated with introspection – such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes.
Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist from the University of Exeter Medical School, led the interdisciplinary team of researchers from the fields of psychology and English. They recruited 13 volunteers, all faculty members and senior graduate students in English, then scanned their brain activity. These scans were compared when reading literal prose – such as an excerpt from a heating installation manual, evocative passages from novels, easy and difficult sonnets, and their favorite poetry.
According to Zeman, “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. This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”