Does our brain enjoy poetry?

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? What if these verses by Shakespeare could unconsciously communicate with the human spirit? A team of researchers has recently demonstrated that people with no knowledge of Welsh poetry are implicitly capable of discerning whether a sentence follows certain poetic rules. Even before considering its literal meaning, are we instinctively capable of enjoying the musical properties of poetry?

As an introduction to their work, Guillaume Thierry and his colleagues at the University of Bangor (United Kingdom) remind us that even in 1932, the poet T.S. Eliot maintained that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” This assertion serves as a sort of starting point for their research which explores the possibility that the musical quality of poetry may be processed unconsciously (independent of meaning). This form of literary expression is traditionally subject to metric constraints. While the impact of certain forms of poetry on human cognition has already been demonstrated (for example Lea et al., 2008 showed better recall of texts that use alliteration), the involvement of underlying automatic and implicit neural processing had never been explored.

For their study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers used sentences written in Cynghanedd (“harmony” in Welsh), an ancient poetic form that follows strict rules, including consonant repetition. Twenty-five participants (9 men and 16 women), all native speakers of Welsh, but with no prior knowledge of Cynghanedd, were retained for the study, but only the data from 18 subjects were kept for analysis. The participants were asked to view 144 sentences in three sections, with the last word presented separately. Participants were asked to indicate as quickly as possible whether the sentence sounded "good." After completing the task, they were also asked to rank the 36 sentence sets by order of preference (from most preferred to least preferred). Throughout the experiment, the subjects’ brain activity was recorded by EEG.

As predicted, the Cynghanedd-naive participants weren’t able to explicitly distinguish the sentences that followed the poetic rules from those that violated them. But the ERP data indicated that the subjects’ brains implicitly detected the harmony of a poem a fraction of a second (between 240 and 340 ms) after being presented with the final word of the sentence.

According to the authors, the results, “demonstrate the ability of the human brain to process poetic forms spontaneously, quickly, and implicitly, in the absence of any formal knowledge or instruction regarding underlying construction rules." Our brain can thus enjoy something (poetry in this case) without us knowing why!
Source: Awel Vaughan-Evans, Robat Trefor, Llion Jones, Peredur Lynch, Manon W. Jones, Guillaume Thierry, “Implicit detection of poetic harmony by the naive brain”, in Frontiers in Psychology, Nov. 2016.

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