Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Poetry, Music, and the Brain

New research has demonstrated that reading poetry stimulates not just the areas of the brain dedicated to reading, but also those areas related to introspection and the emotion areas that are also stimulated by music. In other words, rhythmic poetry stimulates not just the language portions of the brain, but the music portions as well. This may imply that all of the positive attributes of music are equally applicable to poetry.

I have discussed before how music improves vocabulary. Imagine, then, how much more poetry would improve vocabulary over music, given that it actually has words in it. And I have discussed how music improves our ability to interpret emotions. Music is emotional training. Is poetry stimulates the same areas, so too is poetry emotional training. And of course, I have recently noted the discovery that literature improves theory of mind and, thus, empathy. And of course increasing empathy means increasing morality.

The connection to emotions -- suggesting poetry, like music, results in a kind of emotional training -- also suggests a further connection to moral development, given the work of Jonathan Haidt. Haidt demonstrates the emotional underpinnings to morals (developing further Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments); this in turn suggests that if we develop and train our emotions, we will develop and train our morals as well.

The poet who wants to have the most impact on his readers will thus be the poet who simultaneously creates the most musical poetry and challenges his readers with a certain degree of difficulty, requiring them to interpret the work to at least some degree. And the teacher who wants literature to have the strongest impact on his students will have them read precisely such works.
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Update: The supramarginal gyrus, associated with time perception and language (including reading), has been discovered to be involved in empathy. Yet another connection between literature -- especially poetry -- and empathy.
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