Poetry, music, emotions and the brain

You know that thrill, that feeling you get when listening to music? It seems the same thing can happen in the reading experience according to a study which opens up fascinating questions around reading, the brain and emotions.

The relationship between the arts and science is vastly rich, much more complex than the view physicist Richard Feynman was responding to when he noted that, “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?’ One can imagine Feynman being endlessly fascinated and inspired by the way in which contemporary scientists are exploring how we respond to the arts, such as the research by Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist at the University of Exeter Medical school and colleagues including Rick Rylance (at the time Head of the School of Arts, Languages and Literatures at the University of Exeter), looking at how the brain responds to prose and poetry. 

‘We decided we would do a comparison between four or five different kinds of texts,’ explains Professor Zeman, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, to see how the brain responded when people read these texts. For example one of the most basic type of texts, a dull but useful text, was the essential manual for learning to drive in the UK – the Highway Code. Other kinds of texts included: the opening passages of mostly 19th and 20th Century novels; accessible sonnets; more inaccessible poetry and literature; then finally a text chosen by the participant in the study. ‘The participants lay in an MRI scanner reading the texts,’ explained Professor Zeman, ‘which were generally on two pages and they controlled the transition from one page to the next. Each participant chose a favourite poem and we then compared brain activation by those five texts.’ 

Shiver-down-the-spine

Professor Zeman says that while it was a broad-brush study – comparing poetry to prose and the restricted sample of lecturers and PhD students from the literature department – they found a number of things. Some confirmed assumptions such as every kind of text activated the parts of the brain associated with reading, language production (Broca’s area) and comprehension.  

‘And then there were one or two quite strong findings’, says Professor Zeman, ‘one related to the work that inspired our study. There is a beautiful paper by Professor Robert Zatorre in Canada. He played music to classical musicians while they were in the scanner and looked at the phenomenon of “shivers-down-the-spine” when listening to their favourite passage of music. He showed that those passages activated a region which were associated with reward in general.’

The Exeter reading study got all the participants to rate the emotionality of the passages they read and the team found there was a relationship between an increase in emotion and an increase in the areas, ‘which Robert Zatorre had identified in his shivers-down-the-spine study,’ says Professor Zeman. ‘It was a nice demonstration that the emotional response to literature and to music has quite a bit in common. So it doesn’t seem to matter whether you are listening or reading if you get a thrill. That was one quite strong finding.’ 

A lifetime’s worth of questions

They also discovered a clear difference in how people responded while reading a favourite passage versus reading any of the other texts, in that it activated a section of the brain associated with recognition and recollection. ‘If you are reading a favourite poem you more or less know it by heart,’ explains Professor Zeman, ‘so you’re not going to need very many cues from what’s written on the page and most of what’s happening is going to come from within.’ There was a strong correlation between emotionality and favourite passages.

There were other more tentative findings that Professor Rylance was curious about. ‘When we compared poetry with prose we got more information in some regions that are linked in a network that is called the Default Network,’ explains Professor Zeman, ‘a network of regions in the brain that is particularly active if you just rest. These areas seem to be associated with things we do with our minds when we are resting, like thinking about what’s happened to us recently, thinking about what’s going to happen in the near future, about other people, and that network seems to be more strongly associated with poetry than with prose. I think to be sure about that finding you would want to do a better-controlled study than ours. It was an interesting indication as far as it went.’ 

Professor Zeman reflects that, ‘we were doing a rather extravagant study looking at a lot of things. But it did bear out our hunch, in particular our hypothesis that the response to literature was going to be a bit like the response to music in terms of emotion. We felt that we ended up with a life-time’s worth of unanswered questions which we hope somebody will pick up.’