science of us

This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Read Poetry

Photo: Jeff Eliassen/Getty Images

When I think of poetry that packs a sensory punch — that gives me the chills, that makes my hair stand on end — I think of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “First Elegy.” In particular, I think of these lines:

… For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.

The terror Rilke describes here, at least the way I’ve always interpreted it, is the terror of seeing our world from such a removed perspective that we feel as though we might be able to move beyond existence itself. Entering this orbit of wider understanding might allow us to finally see our limitations and the complexities of the world, but it is also a state of being that we do not — and cannot — fully understand. It’s a seductive possibility, at once perversely beautiful and terrifying.

Maybe this analysis doesn’t send chills up your spine the way the poem itself might. But poetry’s tricky that way. On the one hand, it demands analysis — pleasure is often expected to come from rereading, thinking about, discussing, and ultimately “understanding” the poem better. On the other hand, the starkest and most primal of poetic pleasures comes not from lengthy analyses, but from the immediacy of reading or listening — the connection of metaphor, the turn of rhythm, the way the words first strike the ear. Even Vladimir Nabokov wrote that one should read not with his heart or brain but with his body, awaiting “the telltale tingle between the shoulder blades.”

But how does this poetical pleasure take place? And what, exactly, does it look like? In a study published last month in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Eugen Wassiliwizky, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, and a small team of scholars at other German and Norwegian universities set out to understand just that.

The study authors asked groups of mostly female German speakers in their mid-20s — some of whom were frequent poetry readers, and some of whom described themselves as novices — to listen to poetry read out loud. The researchers selected a handful of poems to be read, including some by well-known German poets Friedrich Hölderlin, Friedrich Schiller, Theodor Fontane, and Otto Ernst; participants were also allowed to pick some poems on their own, choosing works from authors including William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Celan, and Rilke. (Especially formally inventive poetry, that of e.e. cummings, for instance, was not a part of the study.) As the volunteers listened, the researchers recorded their heart rate, facial expressions, and — via the incredibly named “goosecam” — the movement of their skin and arm hairs; when the participants felt internal chills, they pressed a button and held it for as long as the chill lasted.

The results: Every person claimed to have felt chills at some point during the process, and about 40 percent showed visible goose bumps — a percentage that lines up with the responses most people have when listening to music and film soundtracks or watching emotional scenes in movies. Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.

The authors also found evidence to support the idea of poetry’s pleasure as a slow-building experience, or what they called a “pre-chill”: While listening to poems they found particularly evocative, the listeners subconsciously anticipated the coming emotional arousal in a way that was neurologically similar to the reward anticipation one might get from, for instance, unwrapping a chocolate bar. Up to 4.5 seconds before the participants pressed the button to say they were feeling chills, the researchers’ skin conductance data showed that the participants’ emotions were already being stirred.

Interestingly, these chills and pre-chills largely occurred at closing positions within the poems — at the end of stanzas and, especially, at the end of the entire poem. This — combined with the fact that 77 percent of participants who had never heard a certain poem before still showed neurological signs of anticipating its points of emotional arousal — demonstrates that there is something fundamental to the poetic form that implies, creates, and instills pleasure.

Do poets think about this kind of emotional manipulation when writing? Maybe. In his book The Courage to Create, the existential psychologist Rollo May wrote, “Poets may be delightful creatures in the meadow or garret, but they are menaces on the assembly line. Mechanization requires uniformity, predictability, and orderliness.” The dissemination of poetical pleasure is a game of fine-tuning. It is largely about crafting sections of memorability: In Wassiliwizky’s study, the poetic lines that most emotionally stirred people were also most memorable for them later.

But poetry transcends this type of methodical scrutiny. It valorizes the unconscious, opening us up to new perspectives; it implies the possibility of unlimited pleasure. When every aspect of a poem comes together — form, cadence, emotional appeal — it doesn’t just provide the literal chills and goose bumps that Wassiliwizky examined. Like Rilke’s “First Elegy,” it instills a feeling of a great unknown, something that can’t be picked up by nodes and scans.

This Is What Happens to Your Brain When You Read Poetry