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The Science of Poetry and the Poetry of Science

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The Science of Poetry and the Poetry of Science

Good poetry punches us right in the gut. It combines the immediate visceral beauty of musical patterns with the more cerebral pleasures of language, making it one of the few art forms that has endured across human history. Although similar to lyrical song, poetry takes more of its allure from language rather than music. It’s not necessarily easy to see why poetry should affect us quite so deeply. It is just a string of words after all. But language gives us the means to throw thoughts and feelings from our own mind across into someone else’s mind. Organize your words in the right order, and you can make someone feel like they’ve never felt before. As an adult, that is a rare experience.

In one of my recent articles, I described the chills that that music can give us. Poetry can do the same thing, but it targets different areas of the brain, especially those further towards the back of your head like the precuneus and supramarginal gyrus. Activity in a cluster of cells deeper within the brain, called the nucleus accumbens, also set the scene for that moment of ecstasy. As a poem gets particularly powerful, these cells ramp up their activity in the seconds leading up to peak emotional intensity, and then settle back down as cortical areas like the precuneus hit us with the chills.

Poetry chills come with all the consequences you’d expect, notably including the goosebumps that sprout over the surface of your body. These intense physiological responses are a signal that whatever is happening right now is deeply relevant to us and we should take note. Information that directly affects us on a personal level has priority in the brain. The precuneus, which ups its brain activity when we experience chills, has been associated with exactly this kind of self-referential processing.

The most enjoyable goosebumps, as opposed to say shivers from the cold, are driven by feelings of awe and surprise. So when a poem says something unexpected that connects deeply with our own personal experiences, you can expect chills to take the stage. The right poem proves to us that our experiences are in good company, no matter how alone we feel. It helps us to realize that we are part of something bigger. Our existence comes from an unbroken chain of life on Earth and a flourishing universe across billions of years. It’s harder to feel isolated when you have the whole universe behind you, right?

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Poetic techniques help to make messages more memorable and meaningful. For example, when aphorisms rhyme, we are more likely to believe that they are accurate in their meaning, because rhyme allows us to process a sentence more fluently. You may remember the infamous line from the defense attorney in the O.J. Simpson trial, after the courtroom watched the alleged murderer trying on the glove used in the killing: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”. Perhaps the line owes some of its success to its effective use of rhyme.

Alliteration also helps us to remember information better, not only the alliterated information itself, but also the messages surrounding it. The patterns and rhythms within poems are a sensory bonus in perception. They drive us to pay attention and connect with a message on a deeper level. Often, the best poems are not necessarily saying anything extraordinary or special. They are simply expressing it in a unique way that allows us to see a familiar scene from a new perspective. New perspectives are powerful because they stimulate our imagination and add vivid clarity to important messages that haven’t yet matured within our own minds.

In stimulating new perspectives, poems also make use of another great device: metaphor. Metaphors often adopt basic concepts to aid us in comprehending more complicated concepts. This may lie behind much of human progress in intelligence. It can be tricky for us to grasp many of the universe’s abstract mysteries, but our ability to represent those mysteries in the form of concrete intuitions helps us to break them down into manageable insights. Of course, there may be limits to this. For example, to this day, we struggle to wrap our minds around concepts such as consciousness or quantum mechanics, even with heroic attempts at metaphors. As the physicist Richard Feynman put it, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”. And as Niels Bohr, another physicist, put it, “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry”. Poetry is often our first and final salvation for making sense of the things that make no sense to us.

To put it simply, poetry nudges us to revisit and reinterpret our own memories. Even the least ambiguous experiences from our past can be brought back to life with a new twist. My favorite example of this comes from the British poet Ross Sutherland. I won’t spoil the poem by describing it, but it’s a great example of what can happen in your mind when you bring together old memories, new words, and emotional meaning. Here is the video.

“Standby for Tape Backup” by Ross Sutherland — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5j0Tc1tu1KI

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Language is, of course, our most important social tool. When we interact with others, the level of overlap in the styles of our conversational language predicts the quality of our relationship. When researchers analyzed the language used by people on speed dates, they found that greater similarity in language styles predicted a greater desire to see each other again. They saw similar outcomes when looking at instant messages sent between couples: a stronger match in language style predicted better relationship stability 3 months later.

Poetry is no exception to this rule in communication. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning were romantically intertwined poets in the Victorian era. The language styles within their poems fluctuated in agreement with the quality of their relationship. The language in their respective poems was most synchronized during the happiest and healthiest period of their relationship. The same pattern can be found in the writings of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, another pair of poets with an emotionally turbulent relationship and the poetic styles to match.

As humans, we do not particularly enjoy uncertainty, but we also want to avoid boredom. Poems may occupy a goldilocks zone between our hesitance to take risks and our search for some hint of novelty. They help us reconstruct our memories in the service of finding meaning, and they help us understand the perplexing world we live in. When our language becomes too repetitive, or our mental life get a little stale, there is no better cure than a dose of poetry.

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Damn It, It’s on the Tip of My Tongue

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Damn It, It’s on the Tip of My Tongue

Photo by  Juliet Furst  on  Unsplash

There is a very specific feeling of frustration that comes with trying to recall a word that you know is sitting in your brain somewhere but failing to drop into your mouth. We refer to it as having a word on the “tip of your tongue”. We might fall into this trap once a week or so in normal life (although it becomes more frequent with age), and around 50% of the time, we manage to get ourselves out of the mess within a minute. We often experience it when a friend asks a question with a familiar answer that we have not heard or used recently, or when we try to find a specific but uncommon word that describes a feeling we are trying to communicate.

Questions with uncommon single-word answers are particularly likely to elicit a tip of the tongue (TOT) phenomenon. Let’s see if any of these questions, which have previously been used to elicit TOT feelings in lab studies, do a good job of getting you into the dreaded TOT mental state (the answers will be at the end of the article):

  • What do you call a word or sentence that reads the same backward and forward such as, “Madam, I’m Adam”?

  • What is the name of the islands off the coast of Ecuador that Darwin visited to study unique species of animal life?

  • What is the order of lower mammals including kangaroos and opossums which carry their young in an abdominal pouch?

  • What is the word meaning favoritism in hiring based on family relationships?

  • What do you call a person who appeals to people’s prejudices, making false claims and promises in order to gain power?

  • What are people who make maps called?

What exactly is our brain up to when we experience a TOT feeling? Brain scans suggest that two key brain areas are particularly active: the anterior cingulate cortex and the right prefrontal cortex. Our anterior cingulate cortex is typically involved in detecting and monitoring mental conflicts. It is a core part of the inner battle between competing options when we encounter a problem. The right prefrontal cortex is involved in working through our memories as we retrieve them, especially when we are not particularly confident that they are correct. It underpins the sense of familiarity but lack of certainty about the solution to a problem when we desperately peruse the contents of our mind in search of the answer.

These brain functions are reminiscent of what happens when a word is on the tip of our tongue. In our mind, we work through multiple conflicting possibilities with similar sounds or meanings as we try to zero in on the target: “is it despotism? Neapolitan… nativism… NEPOTISM!”. There goes the answer to one of the TOT questions I listed above, if you didn’t already think of the word.

We are more likely to find ourselves in a TOT state with emotional words than neutral words. This suggests that emotions are a significant part of our memory recollection process, as we retrieve different clues to what the word may be. Perhaps the emotions themselves are a definitive signal that the word we seek is sitting in our mind somewhere. We know that we know the word, we just can’t quite bring it to the front of our mind. This relates to what scientists call “metacognition”: thinking about thinking.

The metacognitive account of TOT phenomena explains that when we fail to recall a word, we activate our metacognitive processes to estimate whether the word would come to mind if we just thought hard enough. In addition to retrieving any emotional clues, we hunt down related or half-baked bits of information that somehow connect to our target. For example, clues could include syntactic (sentence structure), semantic (meaning), or phonemic (sound) information. As we accumulate some clues, we may cross a threshold that initiates a TOT feeling and encourages us to keep searching rather than give up. Then, if we continue accumulating more clues, we may be lucky enough to cross another threshold that activates the complete target concept and allows us to spit out the word.

To prove that phonemic information is one of the major clues that we use in recalling words, researchers put participants in a TOT state and then tested how well they could eventually recall the correct word. They showed that a list of similar sounding words helped participants to retrieve the correct target word, rather than interfering with their thought process. TOT states make us extra curious to find out the answer to our problem. Reeling off words that sound like they connect to the camouflaged target may be one good way to pull the word out of the bushes.

When we are trying to carefully count objects, perhaps the number of people in a room, our more annoying friends might whisper distracting asynchronous numbers into our ear to force us into furiously starting again. But when it comes to TOT states, a list of similar words can be helpful. As we play detective and attempt to solve a “what is that word?” mystery, any related information that pops into our head becomes a clue. Our brain activity bounces around these clues in trying to resolve the conflict, and with enough information, it eventually settles upon the solution and gives us a feeling of relief that is difficult to rival.

Answers to the list of TOT questions at the top of the article

  • Palindrome

  • Galapagos

  • Marsupials

  • Nepotism

  • Demagogue

  • Cartographers

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The Bird Who Cried Snake

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The Bird Who Cried Snake

Photo by  Ben White  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

If I say “strawberry ice cream”, the odds are that strawberry ice cream will be the first thing that pops into your mind. It’ll probably start with a visual mental image, but you might go on to recall its sweet fruity taste and frosty sensation too. If I instead told you not to think of strawberry ice cream, you’d probably end up in the exact same boat. Mental imagery is often an involuntary phenomenon, and it’s hugely influenced by what people around us say. Sometimes, frustratingly so. The reason we cover our ears when people start talking about repulsive or terrifying scenes is because we know what our mischievous brains will do at that moment or later that night when we are trying to sleep in our dark bedroom.

Language interacts with our mind in stimulating mental imagery and influencing how we handle the world. Verbal communication is primarily a device for sharing important information, so our brains accordingly use language to guide where we should focus our attention. You can see this effect at work when people are looking for hidden objects. If you say the word “square”, people are faster and more accurate in detecting square-like visual images, but slower in detecting circle-like images. And the reverse is true if you say the word “circle”. Despite presenting random words that don’t necessarily predict which object is being presented, people can’t help but use the language in their attention and decision-making. Language and other communicative signals (whether meaningful or misleading) create expectations or “sensory templates” about how an upcoming event should look or sound. Other people’s language has privileged access to our brain.

Speaking of privileged access, you may have noticed throughout your life that certain words are particularly good at grabbing your attention. The first and most obvious example of this is known as the cocktail party effect. When we stand in a noisy bar with friends, we’re usually good at narrowing our attention to focus exclusively on the words that a friend is saying, while filtering out all the nonsense coming out of other people’s mouths. When we avoid paying active attention to the many conversations around us, they essentially sound like one big monotonous buzz. However, if our name pops up within that buzz, many of us immediately and automatically prick up our ears. This means that despite everything sounding like meaningless noise in the background, our brains continue processing something about the unattended information, without us being aware of it. And when that information is suddenly relevant to us (nothing is more relevant than our own name), then our conscious attention shifts from the conversation with our friend, to “is this stranger talking about me?”.

Another type of word with a priority pass into our consciousness is the taboo type. I don’t want to use any of these words directly in this article so I’ll exchange a commonly used example for the rhyming euphemism “cluck”. Even when you are not listening to a conversation, it’s hard to stay tuned out if it suddenly features a cluck. If we are with close friends who regularly swear, it can become a more normal word, but of course then it’s no longer taboo. If we are in more polite company or at a formal event, then we have no choice but to immediately notice and recoil when someone exclaims “cluck this” or talks about their clucking boss at work. It’s another great example of the involuntary effects that language can have on us, not only at a mental imagery level but also an emotional and behavioral level.

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Taboo words connect with our emotional brain systems in a way that more neutral words do not, and they elicit automatic stress-related physiological reactions. It may be that we have two distinct language systems in the brain: one closely related to emotional vocalizations which is more likely to handle swearing and cursing, and another for our more advanced information-filled communicative abilities. Neurological disorders like aphasia are characterized by an inability to speak or understand language, and yet patients can often curse and swear with less difficulty. This may be because their brain damage is confined to the informational language system rather than the emotional system.

We have more in common with other animals when it comes to our emotional vocalizations than our more informational communication. We know that language can have direct and automatic impacts on our own behavior and mental imagery, so perhaps bird calls have similar effects on a bird’s mind. One major reason for birds to call is to raise an alarm. For the Japanese tit, one of the biggest concerns is the Japanese rat snake, which can move up a tree to capture its prey. So could there be a bird call that makes other birds in the area specifically watch out for snakes, or are there only general urgency signals?

One researcher decided to test this for himself by hanging a speaker in a tree, broadcasting alarm calls, and examining how birds would react to a stick that moved like a predatory snake. With general alarm calls, a bird would ignore the stick. But with snake-specific calls, it would fly within a meter of the stick to survey exactly what was going on. In fact, it would only be interested in this stick if it moved in a snake-like way up a tree. It showed no interest in the same stick if it was swinging from the tree in a way that didn’t resemble a snake. Upon spotting a real snake, a bird would normally hover over it and try to look big in an attempt to deter it from progressing further up the tree. Of course, they didn’t need to do that with the stick when their closer inspection revealed it was harmless. But their approach behavior showed that snake-specific alarm calls automatically stimulated the mental image of a snake (or at least something analogous since we don’t know the bird’s direct experience), and shifted their visual attention towards objects in the environment that most resembled that particular dangerous template.

Photo by  SK Yeong  on  Unsplash . Adapted by yours truly.

Photo by SK Yeong on Unsplash. Adapted by yours truly.

Communicative signals directly and specifically affect our next moves, and the benefits of communication clearly apply across many animal species. There are several practical uses to human language including emotional expressions, information exchange, negotiations, and warning signals. In normal circumstances, other people’s signals often predict something meaningful about what may be about to happen, and what we need to look out for in our environment. It is therefore a useful adaptation to use language quickly and automatically when it may be useful. Although this can open the door to frustrating deceptions and false alarms, we have gained a lot more from communicating freely with our fellow humans than we have lost to their occasional bad intentions.

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