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The love affair between science and poetry

17 June 2016

From AFR Weekend:

Poetry and science seem like opposites – but the two have long been intertwined. At London’s Roundhouse in June, performance poet Robin Lamboll’s take was wonderfully dramatic.

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Watching it made me think about the flirtation of poetry and science and how deep a romance it is. In the late 1700s, scientific treatises were written in poetic form because poetry was considered the language of intellect and the future. In the 1800s, Lewis Carroll experimented with mathematical logic to create The Square Stanza.

And who can forget Dante’s The Divine Comedy; a smorgasbord of history and religion which at its damning best was underpinned by solid science such as the action of gravity as he travels to the core of the earth and on Lucifer’s fall through the galaxy.

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Today, many poets embrace and explore both the confirmed and the working theories of physics, astronomy and nature, the most popular scientific fields for poets. The idea of scientists as poets is surprisingly common; a variation of the “writer with the day job”.

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Researchers at the University of Exeter conducted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on people as they read some poetry, to try to identify which areas of the brain are activated. They found that to the mind, poetry is like music, something which Shakespeare would have approved of. The team found activity in the area of the brain generally characterised as the “reading area” but it was the more emotionally charged writing that triggered the region of the brain that responds to music. Interestingly, these areas (on the right side of the brain) also give rise to shivers down the spine.

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When reading their favourite poems, the researchers noticed that areas associated with memory in subjects’ brains were more activated than the reading areas, suggesting that it was more of a fond recollection. Comparing poetry and prose, the team found that poetry activates areas of the mind such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, both of which trigger introspection.

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The research also found that reading poetry in particular increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area associated with “autobiographical memory”, enabling the reader to reflect on and review their own experiences in light of what they had read. The study’s academics believed this meant that the classics were more useful than self-help books.

Link to the rest at AFR Weekend

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