The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology and compositional principles

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2017 Aug 1;12(8):1229-1240. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsx069.


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.

Keywords: aesthetic reward; chills; neuroaesthetics; nucleus accumbens; piloerection; poetic language.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electromyography / methods*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Esthetics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Music*
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology*
  • Poetry as Topic*
  • Psychophysiology
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult