Words, words, words. Too many can leave you biting your tongue and putting your proverbial foot in your mouth. But when used wisely, with artistry and intention, words have the power to produce profound, potentially musical effects in the brain, as was observed in a recent study led by Professor Adam Zeman, a cognitive neurologist from the University of Exeter.
The study, which he conducted with a group of his colleagues in psychology and English, used state-of-the-art functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to explore how the brain responds to various strings of words. He primarily examined the effects of poetry and prose on the brain, but also threw in the more dry and emotionless text of a heating installation manual for good measure.
Brain scans of the 13 volunteers who participated in the study highlighted the specific areas of the brain activated while reading their favorite poems, a variety of sonnets, and some particularly affecting passages from novels. The results reveal a handful of intriguing observations.
Across the board, the team of researchers found evidence of a “reading network” in the brain that responds to any type of written material, including installation manuals. More interesting is the observation that for each of the participants, reading emotionally stirring words activated the same areas of the brain known to be stimulated by listening to music. Additionally, reading their favorite poems aroused areas of the brain associated with memory recollection more strongly than the basic reading areas. Poetry was further shown to trigger activity in parts of the brain that have been linked to introspection, such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes.
To be fair, the volunteers were faculty members and senior graduate students in the English department, individuals for whom the written word is expected to evoke a strong response. Would the same effect be seen in those who aren’t in the habit of turning to the written word for comfort, intellectual interest, and personal enjoyment? Would we find that the majority of the population could really use a little more prose and poetry in their day-to-day lives for optimum brain functioning? Regardless, with various forms of arts-based therapies becoming more widespread, studies such as this one—the first to examine the specific effects of poetry and prose in the brain—are needed to continue to close the presumed gap between science and art.
“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 Zeman in a recent University of Exeter news report. “This was a preliminary study, but it is all part of work that is helping us to make psychological, biological, anatomical sense of art.”
University of Exeter Medical School. (2013, October 9). Poetry is like music to the mind, scientists prove. Retrieved from http://medicine.exeter.ac.uk/news/title_324631_en.html
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