I fixed the NY Mag’s clickbaity title, “This is what happens to your brain when you read poetry.” In fact the original study was about what happens when you listen to a recitation, not what happens when you read. While people “get chills” when they listen to music or watch movies, their brains seem to respond uniquely to poetry, anticipating an emotional rush as they near the end of a stanza or poem. (Maybe this has to do with seeing, out of the corner of your eye, that there’s a break coming? Would this effect still happen if the poem were rearranged as prose? Or if you were listening to someone reciting it? What about listening to a trained oral interpreter, vs listening to an amateur reading the text for the first time, or a computer text-to-speech voice?)
Every person claimed to have felt chills at some point during the process, and about 40 percent showed visible goose bumps — a percentage that lines up with the responses most people have when listening to music and film soundtracks or watching emotional scenes in movies. Their neurological responses, however, seemed to be unique to poetry: Scans taken during the study showed that listening to the poems activated parts of participants’ brains that, as other studies have shown, are not activated when listening to music or watching films.
The authors also found evidence to support the idea of poetry’s pleasure as a slow-building experience, or what they called a “pre-chill”: While listening to poems they found particularly evocative, the listeners subconsciously anticipated the coming emotional arousal in a way that was neurologically similar to the reward anticipation one might get from, for instance, unwrapping a chocolate bar. Up to 4.5 seconds before the participants pressed the button to say they were feeling chills, the researchers’ skin conductance data showed that the participants’ emotions were already being stirred.
Interestingly, these chills and pre-chills largely occurred at closing positions within the poems — at the end of stanzas and, especially, at the end of the entire poem. This — combined with the fact that 77 percent of participants who had never heard a certain poem before still showed neurological signs of anticipating its points of emotional arousal — demonstrates that there is something fundamental to the poetic form that implies, creates, and instills pleasure.