Word Power: The Neuropsychology of Poetry

Haiku: Masahide

I read a poem every morning and frequently encourage clients to include poetry as part of their self-care/healing routines. Poetry has an emotional force that evokes basic human empathy. In a few essential words, it can express grief, longing, resolve, hope, and anger.

Poetry can provide comfort and boost mood during periods of stress, trauma, and grief. Its powerful combination of words, metaphor, and meter help us better express ourselves and make sense of the world and our place in it. Using poetry to find our voice can open up new ways of expressing ourselves that cannot be traversed with everyday words, and open up ways to heal and restore us, particularly in times of stress.

Clinical psychology research:
Different research studies have found evidence that writing or reading poetry can be therapeutic for both patients dealing with illness and adversity, as well as their caregivers. A 2021 study of hospitalized children found that providing opportunities for them to read and write poetry reduced their fear, sadness, anger, worry, and fatigue. A group of 44 pediatric patients was given poetry-writing kits containing writing prompts, samples of selected poems, colorful construction paper, pens, and markers. The majority of children reported that they felt happy after the poetry activity. The post-poetry surveys also found that writing and reading poetry gave the children a welcome distraction from stress and an opportunity for self-reflection.

Another recent study found that guided poetry writing sessions significantly alleviated both symptoms of depression and trauma in adolescents who have been abused. Other studies found that poetry therapy with a mental health therapist helped cancer patients improve emotional resilience, reduce anxiety levels, and improve their quality of life. One study of undergraduate students in Iran found that reading poetry together reduced signs of depression, anxiety, and stress.

Poetry therapy may support the emotional well-being of caregivers, including domestic violence counselors, family members of dementia patients, and frontline healthcare workers. A systematic review published in 2019 found that poetry can help healthcare workers combat burnout, reduce stress, and increase empathy for patients, providing the possibility of an arts-based tool to turn to during the pandemic and beyond.

Neuropsychology research:
I have stated elsewhere that when I read something truly evocative, I can feel it on the skin. Neuropsychological research has found that recited poetry can cause participants to feel intense emotions and actual feelings of chills. Surprisingly, even subjects with little prior experience with poetry were moved; 77% said they experienced chills listening to unfamiliar poems. Video recording of the participants’ skin (via a “goosecam”) captured objective evidence of goosebumps during the readings.

These poetry-induced chills activate parts of the brain’s frontal lobe and ventral striatum, which are involved with reward and pleasure. The insular cortex, a brain area associated with bodily awareness, was also activated during these moving passages which may explain why poetry can feel like a visceral full-body experience.

Poetry as a whole-brain experience:
The use of metaphor; making comparisons and drawing connections between different concepts—in particular has been found to activate the right hemisphere of the brain. Normally, our brain’s left hemisphere is most involved in helping us understand language, but research has found that the right hemisphere may be critically important for integrating meanings of two seemingly unrelated concepts into a comprehensible metaphor. Patients who have difficulty with verbal expression, whether it’s based on trauma or neurodivergence, may benefit from poetry.

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