19. May 2017

The Power of Poetry

Poetic language is one of the most ancient forms of human expression. The presence of poems in cultures around the world and throughout recorded history suggests that it has a strong grip on human emotion. However, to date, no empirical study has investigated the emotional effects of poems on the human brain and body. Using a multimethod approach that includes behavioral, physiological, and neuroimaging data, we investigated the emotional power of recited moving poems.

The results demonstrate that poetry is capable of inducing intense states of being moved that are marked by subjectively felt chills and objectively measurable goosebumps (captured via the so-called goosecam). Importantly, we observed these strong reactions not only in response to highly familiar poems that were self-selected individually by participants, but also in response to poems that were experienced for the very first time. Moreover, we found evidence for the capacity of poetry-elicited chills to involve not only the reward circuitry in the brain, but at the same time physiological markers of negative affect as indexed by facial muscle activity. At first glance, these findings seem paradoxical. However, the peculiar blend of pleasure and negative emotions constitutes the very essence of being moved, which already Friedrich Schiller succinctly defined as “the mixed sentiment of suffering and the pleasure taken in this suffering.” 225 years after Schiller coined this formula, our current physiological data give strong support for his definition.

Finally, the distribution of chills over poems gives valuable insights into the mechanisms of poetic language. Specifically, our analyses revealed that chills are more likely to occur in passages of social address, e.g., in direct speech, as compared to descriptive, narrative passages. This shows the importance of social cognition and attachment-related feelings in episodes of being moved. Moreover, we discovered that chills accumulate at the end of lines, stanzas, and entire poems. The reason for that lies in the compositional principles of poetic language, such as rhyme and poetic meter (i.e., the stress pattern of syllables). These recurrent features of poetic language draw heavily on our brains’ inclination toward rhythmicity and the resulting arousal of expectations. The places at which the greatest number of predictions can be met or violated are closing positions at different levels of a poem. Poets and authors are likely to intuitively, if not explicitly, know these techniques and make use of them to enhance the emotional power of their works.

Original publication (open access):

Wassiliwizky, E., Koelsch, S., Wagner, V., Jacobsen, T., & Menninghaus, W. (2017). The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology, compositional principles. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience. doi 10.1093/scan/nsx069


Eugen Wassiliwizky (Language and Literature)
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt
+49 69 8300479-114

Dr. Anna Husemann
Max-Planck-Institut für empirische Ästhetik, Frankfurt am Main
+49 69 8300479-650