People often describe their reactions to poetry in physical terms. The words really hit me, one reader might say after hearing a particularly powerful poem, while another reader might reflect that an evocative poem left them stunned. In both of these cases, the readers were so moved by poems that they experienced—or at least described—a physical reaction to the work. While it’s easy to write off these metaphors as simply evidence of overactive imaginations, a recent scientific study suggests that poems can actually produce physical reactions among listeners and literally give you goosebumps.
Eugen Wassiliwizky of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany conducted a study in which he observed that listening to poetry can elicit physical reactions, and he published his findings in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
The study included two experiments. First, Wassiliwizky and his team monitored the face, heart, and skin hair activity of 27 subjects, all of whom were native speakers of German. Wassiliwizky and his team played recordings of poems, which spanned several genres, styles, and centuries, that the subjects had selected as emotionally powerful. Of the 27 subjects, all of them felt chills and 11 experienced piloerection, more commonly known as goosebumps, where their skin hair stood on end. According to Wassiliwizky, goosebumps could have a positive effect on empathy, thus increasing feelings of personal well-being or group harmony.
In the second experiment, 18 subjects—all native speakers of German once again—listened to recordings of poems that they had selected as emotionally powerful, but instead of monitoring their physical reactions, Wassiliwizky conducted fMRI brain scans as they listened to the poetry. Multiple regions of the subjects’ brains lit up as they listened to the poems, including the nucleus accumbens, which processes rhythm, rewards, and establishes and tests anticipation.
Interestingly, Wassiliwizky pointed out that listening to music has a different effect on the brain, and he suspects that processing the meaning of words in poetry may be the reason why.
Wassiliwizky and his team plan on conducting more research into how poetry affects the body and brain, but for now, their findings lend scientific terminology to a phenomenon that poets and their audiences have understood for centuries. For example, he describes how poetry-induced goosebumps can increase empathy and promote social harmony, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has turned to poems for comfort or shared a poem with friends and felt closer to them. So the next time that you hear someone react to a powerful poem by saying that it moved them or touched them, they might not be exaggerating.