The Science of Poetry and the Poetry of Science

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD on 2018-10-20

Photo by Pierre Châtel-Innocenti on Unsplash

Good poetry punches us right in the gut. It combines the immediate visceral beauty of musical patterns with the more cerebral pleasures of language. Although similar to lyrical song, poetry takes more of its allure from language rather than music. It’s not necessarily easy to see why poetry should affect us quite so deeply. It is just a string of words after all. But language gives us the means to throw thoughts and feelings from our own mind across into someone else’s mind. Organize your words in the right order, and you can make someone feel like they’ve never felt before. As an adult, that is a rare experience.

In one of my recent articles, I described the chills that that music can give us. Poetry can do the same thing, but it targets different areas of the brain, especially those further towards the back of your head like the precuneus and supramarginal gyrus. Activity in a cluster of cells deeper within the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, also set the scene for that moment of ecstasy. As a poem gets particularly powerful, these cells ramp up their activity in the seconds leading up to peak emotional intensity, and then settle back down as cortical areas like the precuneus hit us with the chills.

Poetry chills come with all the consequences you’d expect, notably including the goosebumps that sprout over the surface of your body. These intense physiological responses are a signal that whatever is happening right now is deeply relevant to us and we should take note. Information that directly affects us on a personal level has priority in the brain. The precuneus, which ups its brain activity when we experience chills, has been associated with exactly this kind of self-referential processing.

The most enjoyable goosebumps, as opposed to say shivers from the cold, are driven by feelings of awe and surprise. So when a poem says something unexpected that connects deeply with our own personal experiences, you can expect chills to take the stage. The right poem proves to us that our experiences are in good company, no matter how alone we feel. It helps us to realize that we are part of something bigger. Our existence comes from an unbroken chain of life on Earth and a flourishing universe across billions of years. It’s harder to feel isolated when you have the whole universe behind you, right?

Poetic techniques help to make messages more memorable and meaningful. For example, when aphorisms rhyme, we are more likely to believe that they are accurate in their meaning, because rhyme allows us to process a sentence more fluently. You may remember the infamous line from the defense attorney in the O.J. Simpson trial, after the courtroom watched the alleged murderer trying on the glove used in the killing: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”. Perhaps the line owes some of its success to its effective use of rhyme.

Alliteration also helps us to remember information better, not only the alliterated information itself, but also the messages surrounding it. The patterns and rhythms within poems are a sensory bonus in perception. They drive us to pay attention and connect with a message on a deeper level. Often, the best poems are not necessarily saying anything extraordinary or special. They are simply expressing it in a unique way that allows us to see a familiar scene from a new perspective. New perspectives are powerful because they stimulate our imagination and add vivid clarity to important messages that haven’t yet matured within our own minds.

In stimulating new perspectives, poems also make use of another great device: metaphor. Metaphors often adopt basic concepts to aid us in comprehending more complicated concepts. This may lie behind much of human progress in intelligence. It can be tricky for us to grasp many of the universe’s abstract mysteries, but our ability to represent those mysteries in the form of concrete intuitions helps us to break them down into manageable insights. Of course, there may be limits to this. For example, to this day, we struggle to wrap our minds around concepts such as consciousness or quantum mechanics, even with heroic attempts at metaphors. As the physicist Richard Feynman put it, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. And as Niels Bohr, another physicist, put it, “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry”. Poetry is often our first and final salvation for making sense of the things that make no sense to us.

To put it simply, poetry nudges us to revisit and reinterpret our own memories. Even the least ambiguous experiences from our past can be brought back to life with a new twist. My favorite example of this comes from the British poet Ross Sutherland. I won’t spoil the poem by describing it, but it’s a great example of what can happen in your mind when you bring together old memories, new words, and emotional meaning. Here is the video.

Language is, of course, our most important social tool. When we interact with others, the level of overlap in the styles of our conversational language predicts the quality of our relationship. When researchers analyzed the language used by people on speed dates, they found that greater similarity in language styles predicted a greater desire to see each other again. They saw similar outcomes when looking at instant messages sent between couples: a stronger match in language style predicted better relationship stability 3 months later.

Poetry is no exception to this rule in communication. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were romantically intertwined poets in the Victorian era. The language styles within their poems fluctuated in agreement with the quality of their relationship. The language in their respective poems was most synchronized during the happiest and healthiest period of their relationship. The same pattern can be found in the writings of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, another pair of poets with an emotionally turbulent relationship and the poetic styles to match.

As humans, we do not particularly enjoy uncertainty, but we also want to avoid boredom. Poems may occupy a goldilocks zone between our hesitance to take risks and our search for some hint of novelty. They help us reconstruct our memories in the service of finding meaning, and they help us understand the perplexing world we live in. When our language becomes too repetitive, or our mental life get a little stale, there is no better cure than a dose of poetry.