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Your Brain Loves Poetry Even If It Doesn’t Understand Its Meaning, Says Science

Your brain reacts positively to lines of poetry of specific construction styles even if you do not actually grasp the literary meaning of the writing, says a new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, which is the first to demonstrate this occurrence.

Poetry is literary music—and your brain knows it. The new study shows how the brain can appreciate certain types of poems, regardless of whether it understands the meaning thereof or not. Led by Professor Guillaume Thierry, a team of scientists from Bangor University, demonstrated that the organ in question could unconsciously appreciate poetic construction. The research is the first one to document a positive electrophysiological response in the brain upon exposure to a traditional poetic construct.

Professor Thierry describes poetry as “a particular type of literary expression that conveys feelings, thoughts and ideas by accentuating metric constraints, rhyme and alliteration.” It appears that we do not require the knowledge of the meaning of the words to feel the emotions meant to be conveyed.

The team put together two sets of sentence samples: one conforming to poetic construction rules of Cynghanedd, a type of Welsh poetry, and the other defying its guidelines. The sentences were given out to native people of Wales, the participants of the study, for them to rate the lines; note that they did not possess any knowledge of Cynghanedd sound arrangement. The results show that the brains of the volunteers implicitly found the Cynghanedd traditional lines of poetry more pleasant to hear, as opposed to the sentences violating the rules.

As a further way to test their hypothesis (whether we can appreciate the music of poetry regardless of understanding it or not), the Event-Related Brain Potential (ERP) of the participants was mapped just when the poem ended. The researchers found that the brain generated an electrophysiological reaction when it came to poems conforming to Cynghanedd rules; this did not, however, happen when the particular patterns of sounds were violated. A more surprising finding was that the positive responses happened even if the participants were not aware that the sentences they preferred were actually in harmony to the rules.

“It is the first time that we show unconscious processing of poetic constructs by the brain, and of course, it is extremely exciting to think that one can inspire the human mind without being noticed,” says Professor Thierry.


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