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

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

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Department of Language and Literature, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, 60322 Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, 14195 Berlin, Germany.
Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, University of Bergen, 5020 Bergen, Norway.
Experimental Psychology Unit, Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg, 22043 Hamburg, Germany.


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.


aesthetic reward; chills; neuroaesthetics; nucleus accumbens; piloerection; poetic language

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