Listening to Poetry Really Can Give You Chills and Goosebumps

A recent study shows that recited poetry can spark brain activation patterns that produce emotional responses and engage the body's reward circuitry.

“I wrote my way out of hell / I wrote my way to revolution / I was louder than the crack in the bell / I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell / I wrote about the Constitution and defended it well / And in the face of ignorance and resistance / I wrote financial systems into existence / And when my prayers to God were met with indifference / I picked up a pen, I wrote my own deliverance.”  an excerpt from “Hurricane,” as featured in Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“So damn good gives me the chills,” wrote a fan of the hip-hop-inflected hit musical Hamilton in a short post online. “The anticipation and the passion lyric gives me goosebumps every time,” gushed another. New research supports the claim that rap music, classic narrative poems, and other forms of vocal delivery that incorporate rhyme and rhythmic speech can spark physical reactions in individuals, possibly because our response to such works may be innate.

“The presence of poetic language around the globe and the fact that a special form of poetic language is used by parents intuitively when they speak to their infants points at least in this direction,” Eugen Wassiliwizky of the department of language and literature at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics told Seeker.

Wassiliwizky led a recent study on poetry, which is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. He and his team point out that written poetry is the most ancient recorded form of human literature, with roots that extend far into the past when literacy had not yet evolved and poems were passed down in oral traditions.

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To examine how poetry affects listeners, Wassiliwizky and his team conducted two experiments. For the first, the researchers monitored the heart, face, and skin hair activity of 27 native German speakers as they listened to recordings of self-selected poems that were deemed to be emotionally powerful. The poems were drawn from a wide span of time, covering everything from Shakespearian sonnets to modern German works.

All of the listeners experienced chills. Eleven exhibited piloerection — also known as goosebumps — where their skin hairs involuntarily stood on end.

The function of goosebumps, Wassiliwizky said, “could have a beneficial effect on our empathic capacities and therefore influence both personal well-being and harmony within a social group.” Goosebumps can also be socially contagious, like yawning, further promoting shared group behaviors.

For the second experiment, 18 native German speakers again listened to powerful self-selected poems, but this time underwent fMRI brain scans as they heard the poetry.

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During chill-inducing moments, the listeners experienced activation of multiple brain regions, including the nucleus accumbens. This is an area of the brain that’s involved in processing rhythm, rewards, and in establishing and testing anticipations. Wassiliwizky noted that listening to music produces different brain activation patterns.

The researchers are not yet certain why poetry and music affect the brain differently, but they suspect that processing the meaning of words in poetry is the key.

“The semantic component is essential for poetry no less than for ordinary language; this component is further amplified by the musical features of poetic language,” Wassiliwizky explained. “Thus, poetry fuses elements of language and music, but is not designed to reach its full power in the absence of semantic meaning.”

Some cultures might have evolved more sensitivity to poetry than others, perhaps associated with inherent musical and rhythmic aspects of particular languages and their origins. Men and women might even react differently to poetry. Little research yet exists on these possibilities. But Wassiliwizky said it is clear that interest in poetry in many cultures increases with rising political tensions. He pointed to examples in German and Russian history.

“In very recent times, in the context of the Arab Spring, a great number of Arabic poets emerged and gained high popularity,” he offered. “Given their great potential to express and elicit strong emotions and the high memorability, poems seem to fulfill a valuable function in times of political instability, repressions and the struggle for freedom.”

Poetry might conversely fall flat on the ears of some listeners, but its innate power to incite a physical response could amplify with exposure and learning. The researchers recommend that poetry should be given more importance in school lessons. Recitations by professional speakers could be helpful, but they say that students should be able to write and recite their own poems as well as those of others.

“Otherwise, they are dry and boring exercises,” Wassiliwizky explained. “Also, the simple fact that poems and lyrics are so much shorter than narratives is a great advantage in the classroom situation that is largely neglected nowadays.”

Another benefit of poetry is that it can integrate negative emotions in an overall positive aesthetic experience. Wassiliwizky is reminded of the words of the German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805), who defined being moved as “the mixed sentiment of suffering and the pleasure taken in this suffering.”

In the future, the researchers hope to learn about the long-term effects of reading and listening to poems on the personality and behavior of individuals. They also hope to gain a more detailed understanding of the workings of both poetic language and music in the brains of listeners.