Thursday, October 12, 2017

Brain and body imaging of the emotional power of poetry.

By now a body of work has grown on how peak musical experiences engage the reward systems of our brains, with concomitant changes such as tingling and goosebumps triggered by our autonomic nervous systems. A colleague pointed me to this discussion by Delistraty of recent work in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience by Wassiliwizky et al. that extends this sort of analysis to the appreciation of poetry. I suggest you read the discussion. Here is the abstract of the work:
It is a common experience—and well established experimentally—that music can engage us emotionally in a compelling manner. The mechanisms underlying these experiences are receiving increasing scrutiny. However, the extent to which other domains of aesthetic experience can similarly elicit strong emotions is unknown. Using psychophysiology, neuroimaging and behavioral responses, we show that recited poetry can act as a powerful stimulus for eliciting peak emotional responses, including chills and objectively measurable goosebumps that engage the primary reward circuitry. Importantly, while these responses to poetry are largely analogous to those found for music, their neural underpinnings show important differences, specifically with regard to the crucial role of the nucleus accumbens. We also go beyond replicating previous music-related studies by showing that peak aesthetic pleasure can co-occur with physiological markers of negative affect. Finally, the distribution of chills across the trajectory of poems provides insight into compositional principles of poetry.

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