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023 Rhyme and reason: the neural correlates of reading poetry and prose
  1. A Smith,
  2. F Milton,
  3. R Rylance,
  4. A Zeman


Aims An exploratory study examining the neural networks involved in reading different genres of text.

Methods This functional MRI study recruited 12 skilled readers who teach English literature at Exeter University. Participants were randomly presented with eight examples of each of 5 types of text: technical prose (condition 1), literary prose (2), conventional sonnets (3), demanding sonnets (4), self-chosen “thrilling” poetry (5). They were asked to read these silently, at their natural reading pace. We used a visual control condition requiring a judgement as to whether faces were famous. Participants rated the familiarity, “literariness” and emotionality of each passage at the end of the scanning session.

Results Prose passages elicited stronger activation in visual areas 17 and 18 than poetry. Conditions 3 and 4 gave rise to stronger activation of a network of areas including the cingulate cortex (areas 23, 24, 31) than conditions 1 and 2. Condition 5 elicited stronger activation than either prose or the two sonnet conditions in regions associated with the “default” or autobiographical memory networks (in particular bilateral inferior parietal regions (area 40) and bilateral precuneus (area 7)). Lateral temporal activations were weaker for the self-selected passages than for the other types. Right hemisphere activations were prominent in several comparisons, in particular comparisons of poetry with prose. Parametric analyses indicated that both “emotionality” and “literariness” were associated with cingulate activation.

Conclusions These are preliminary, as the passages used in this study varied in numerous ways in this exploratory work: the differences in brain activation we have identified therefore pose as many questions as they answer. We suspect that the visual area activations evident in the prose conditions relate to their higher word count. The association of relative cingulate, inferior parietal and precuneus activation by poetry in comparison with prose may be explained in terms of cognitive load (higher for prose passages with a higher word count) or by a more self-directed, “inward” or autobiographical mode of processing during the reading of poetry than the reading of prose. The presence of right hemisphere activations emphasises the role of the non-dominant hemisphere in aspects of language processing. The questions raised by this work can be addressed by further studies examining the roles of the relevant explanatory variables individually.

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