Verse broadens the mind, scientists find

Verse broadens the mind, scientists find


IF LITERATURE is food for the
 mind, then a poem is a banquet, according to research by Scottish scientists
 which shows poetry is better for the brain than prose.

Psychologists at Dundee
and St Andrews universities claim the work of poets such as Lord
Byron exercise the mind more than a novel by Jane Austen. By monitoring the way
different forms of text are read, they found poetry generated far more eye
 movement which is associated with deeper thought.

Subjects were found to read
 poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with 
prose. Preliminary studies using brain-imaging technology also showed greater
 levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Dr
Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a member of the research group, believes poetry 
may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop
 during childhood. She claims the intense imagery woven through poems, and 
techniques used by poets to unsettle their readers, force them to think more
 carefully about each line. “There seems to be an almost immediate
 recognition that this is a different sort of language that needs to be 
approached in a way that will be more attentive to the density of words in
 poetry,” she said. “It may be because readers are trying to hear the 
words or recreate the imaginary event the poet has provided a script for.
” Also, children seem to be born with a love of rhyme and rhythm. Then
 something happens and by the time we see them in the first year at university
 many of them are almost frightened of poetry and clamouring to study the
 contemporary novel.”
To study readers’ reactions,
 the research group focused an infrared beam on the pupils of their eyes to
 detect minute movements as they read.

They found poetry produced 
all the standard psychological indications associated with intellectual
 difficulty, such as slow deliberate movement, re-reading sections and long
 pauses. Even when they used identical content but displayed it in both a poem
 format and a prose format, they discovered readers found the poem form the more
 difficult to understand. Stabler said: “When readers decide that something
 is a poem, they read in a different way. As literary critics we would like to 
think that this is a more thoughtful way, more receptive to the text’s richness
 and complexity, but in psychological terms it is the same sort of reading
 produced by a dyslexic reader who finds reading difficult. “We focused on
 poetry that disturbs or unsettles readers like the work of Lord Byron. “We
 found that his stanza form in Don Juan does make subjects read more quickly
 than readers focusing on the rhymes of an elegy in a similar metre.”

Stabler believes those
 reading other poets, such as Robert Burns, would show similar increases in
 brain activity.

The group hopes to use
 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to watch how the brain reacts as people 
listen to poetry and prose. Early results suggest a larger area of the brain
 lights up in the scans upon hearing poetry by Byron than prose by Austen. The 
research has profound implications for the way English literature is taught in
 schools, and Stabler believes they should consider placing greater emphasis on 
teaching youngsters poetry.

Both rhythm and rhyme have been found to be
 intricately linked with making and recalling memories. Stabler asked: “If 
poetry helps to stir memory, might it be useful in the treatment of age-related
 or injury related memory problems?” Dr Martin Fischer, an experimental
 psychologist at Dundee University involved in the project, claims the findings could 
also form the basis for producing new techniques for helping dyslexic children.
 He said: “It certainly has implications for children who have certain
 difficulties, like in dyslexia where a rhyming deficiency could be compensated
 for by exposing them to more poetry.” Members of the literary world have
 welcomed the research and insist it underlines the importance poetry has played 
in literature.

Bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin said too many people felt
 intimidated by poetry without realising it was designed to be challenging. He
 said: “Novels first began as a form of poetry where story telling was used
 to pass tales from one generation to the next. This was done with rhythm and
 rhyme as it made the stories easier to remember. “We are even seeing that
 today with song lyrics – the only way rap artists can remember all those lyrics
 is because they have rhythm and rhyme. “Not many people pick up books of 
poetry anymore to read. You have to wonder if people find them too hard. “
Edwin Morgan, the nation’s official Makar, the Scottish equivalent of the poet
 laureate, added: “Writing poetry is almost a physical experience as well
 as mental. Children are rarely worried about extracting too much meaning from
 poems, but they seem to get a much deeper experience from it.”


AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

14 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Those of us who teach young people have seen for ourselves the differing ways in which they approach and write ‘prose’ and ‘poetry’, with poetry almost always representing their best, most creative work.

  2. Time is a resource much as any other resource. Playing chess, reading for pleasure and many other activities also help to broaden the mind. There have also been studies that relate time spent outdoors in nature or listening to classical music as being also mentally beneficial.

    I think it would be hard to argue that there is any one activity that will be proved to enhance mental ability for everyone if you exclude reading and math which do seem to be prerequisites for mental growth.

    In an ideal world everyone would exercise and have a proper diet leading to a healthy physical condition. A healthy body is needed to achieve mental potential.

    So while I am sure that poetry is a worthwhile endeavor and has a proper place as an element of growth potential, whether or not it is the most efficient element I suspect is individual specific.

    All I am really saying is that in the priority list of things to do to help correct our educational system, poetry needs to be included but likely fails to rise to the top third.

  3. I think that is only the beginning.
    The important of poetry is underestimated
    tremendously, I believe.

    Consider this: for all the creative and destructive
    power of the Internet, for all the pressure put on
    older media: books, radio, TV, etc.. What is it
    that we are even more intensely dependent
    on than we ever were before? The words.
    How do we find an idea? Google the words.
    How do we find a looker, an listener? keywords, comments, etc.
    Words. Condensed words, patterned words, and even more to the point,
    evocative words. These are the keys we use every day to access
    thoughts, ideas, information. Extractive words and evocative
    words are far more important now than they were even 5 yrs ago.
    Doesn’t that all seem remarkably like poetry?
    An obsession with poetic skill is sweeping across hundreds of
    thousands, and we aren’t sure what it means….with is the
    outlet for this river? Perhaps our inner minds feel that
    connection between work and play that has been hiding
    in plain sight for years now: The words are the only keys
    to all we can find. We don’t go to channels anymore:
    we type words. We don’t tune Megahertz: no, we use words.
    We don’t shop up at a certain hour, at a certain station:
    we plant our words, and we connect them to other people’s
    words. This is true even if we are pushing non-word art, notice.

    Skills in poetry are intimately
    connected to skills in broadcasting
    and tuning for: thoughts.

  4. Dear John Hayes,

    No one would disagree with your contention that children and adults need to eat well, breathe fresh air, know how to count, be exposed to the arts . . . and on and on. But your response to the original essay teeters on the polemical: I can’t really find a statement in the text that proposes the poetry is the sole food for the brain and that the others should be pushed aside. Do I note a small note (perhaps a thirty-second note?) of defensiveness here? Perhaps you might want to reread the original statement before responding to an imagined ideological position it seems not to take.

  5. I’m sorry. Our backgrounds are obviously from different sides . My background is in visual dyslexia and the keywords and ideas that caught my eye include, scientists find, MRI ,eye movements associated with deeper thought,greater
 levels of cerebral activity ,believes poetry 
may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop
 during childhood,would show similar increases in
 brain activity, and early results suggest a larger area of the brain
 lights up in the scans upon hearing poetry .

    All of those words and ideas from the article I evaluate against similar studies done with dyslexics and consider the implications. I’m more of a data person than poetry and the things that come to my mind are questions about how much the eye movements associated with deeper thought differed when reading poetry and prose and whether or not there was any overlap that data .

    Could someone tell by looking at only the eye movement data determine whether poetry or prose was actually being read? What technique was actually used” Preliminary studies using brain-imaging technology ” “Hope to use MRI”

    The article goes on to say”Dr Martin Fischer, an experimental
 psychologist at Dundee University involved in the project, claims the findings could 
also form the basis for producing new techniques for helping dyslexic children.
 He said: “It certainly has implications for children who have certain
 difficulties, like in dyslexia where a rhyming deficiency could be compensated
 for by exposing them to more poetry.””

    Perhaps I should’ve been more direct that my comments were particularly about the unlikelihood of poetry being a new technique for teaching dyslexic children. Indeed it shows a lack of understanding about what dyslexia is.

    For an analogy it is similar to suggesting that people with math learning difficulties study calculus because calculus actually explains all the other math. The main characteristic of dyslexia is that it is a language processing problem. I really don’t feel that poetry is going to be effective learning technique for dyslexics.

    As to the fact that some dyslexics have problems rhyming , phonological training, more of the nuts and bolts type of training is required rather than poetry.

    It’s not that I don’t see the value of poetry and the thought it requires or the beauty or even the mental growth from the discipline of reading poetry.

    You look at the article as validating from a scientific viewpoint the mental growth potential of reading poetry. I looked at the article as looking at the difference between poetry and prose in a scientific way and coming to the conclusion that this very well might be likely a good technique for helping dyslexic children. That was the focus of my comment and in my opinion the conclusion is wrong.

    I would suggest you reread the article and try to understand it from a scientific point of view ,which it says it is,and then reread my comment. Does that sound a bit insulting ? I thought so.

    I stand my ground in my opinion that poetry has value as a higher level intellectual pursuit but is not necessarily a time effective educational method. I would like to again point out my disagreements particularly about poetry being helpful for dyslexics.

    I suggest that because of our backgrounds we read two entirely different articles
    So you see my comment, which I felt was balanced, gave the respect to poetry that I feel it richly deserves but also expressed my opinion that there are other methods of education that are likely to take less time and time is a limited educational resource.

  6. There appears to be a comparison of poetry
    and story in prose. If a literary story were told
    as a poem (as some surely are), wouldn’t the time
    the student had to spend anyway earn two
    benefits for one effort? Just curious.
    Perhaps seeing conflicts and contentions
    often denies us the odd innovation.

  7. I totally agree, this is what I have been thinking for some time. And I also think that if they scan the brain while reading Of Grammatology of Derrida, they will also find some surprises there…
    Care to you, and congratulations as usual for your great works, Anny

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