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More Than Words: Why Poetry Is Good for Our Health

International Arts + Mind Lab2021-03-11

Johns Hopkins International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics

Johns Hopkins International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:

That even as we grieved, we grew

That even as we hurt, we hoped

That even as we tired, we tried

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”

Amanda Gorman, the 2017 National Youth Poet Laureate, spoke these powerful words at the 2020 presidential inauguration from the dais of the United States Capitol where, just weeks prior, a violent insurrection had erupted.

For millions of viewers watching virtually, amidst a raging pandemic and tumultuous political moment, her words provided solace and healing.

Gorman’s performance was a testament to the power of poetry and its delivery through spoken word to express our collective fears and most fervent hopes. Research shows that poetry—reading, writing, speaking it—can help support our mental health, especially in times of great need.


The Healing Word

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.

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 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 certified therapist helped cancer patients improve emotional resilience, alleviate anxiety levels and improve their quality of life.

Poetry therapy also 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 and increase empathy for patients, giving the frontlines another arts-based tool to turn to during the pandemic and beyond.

And the healing benefits of poetry can extend to just about anyone: one study of undergraduate students in Iran found that reading poetry together reduced signs of depression, anxiety, and stress. 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. As UCLA psychiatrist and poetry therapist Robert Carroll once put it: “Our voices are embodiments of ourselves, whether written or spoken. It is in times of extremity that we long to find words or hear another human voice letting us know we are not alone.”


Rhythm and Rhyme on the Mind

Our brains are highly attuned to rhyme and rhythm in poetry. Even newborn infants respond to rhymes. In one 2019 study, researchers measured the surface brain activity of 21 Finnish newborn babies listening to regular speech, music, or nursery rhymes. Only the nursery rhymes produced a significant brain response when the rhymes were altered, suggesting that the infants’ brains were trying to predict what rhyme should have occurred.

Of course, even adults appreciate rhythmic and rhyming poems. One study found that the brain can automatically detect poetic harmonies and patterns even when the reader had not read much poetry before. In particular, stanzas with rhymes and a regular meter, or rhythm, led to a greater aesthetic appreciation and more positively felt emotions. This may be because, according to the cognitive fluency theory, we tend to enjoy things that are easier for us to mentally process, and both rhyme and repeated patterns do just that.

Rhyme and rhythm in poetry also intensify all emotional responses, be it joy or sadness. And like music, poetry can give us the chills, producing literal goosebumps with a good stanza. One study found that recited poetry could cause participants to feel intense emotions and subjective feelings of chills. Surprisingly, even subjects with little prior experience with poetry were moved; 77% of them 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 full-body experience.

The words matter too, of course. The right words in a poem elevate the intensity of positive emotions the reader has.

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 far more 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.

In times of trauma, our language centers may go offline, making it difficult to fully express ourselves. By activating a different part of the brain through metaphor, poetry may help us again find our voice.

Though more research still needs to be conducted to understand all the ways poetry impacts our health, this much is clear: beyond rhyme or reason, poetry is good for our health and soul.

How to Make a Rhyme on Your Own Time

For adults

Listen to The Slowdown daily poem podcast from American Public Media and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Check out these 5 tips for how to read poetry from NPR.

Write your own poems. Try these poetry exercises to help you get started.

For teens

Read some selected poetry that resonates with teens.

Transform Shakespeare into a pop song or vice-versa. Take a sonnet by the Bard and write it like a Top 40 hit. Or turn your favorite love ballad and make it a sonnet.

Try your hand at writing your own poem – these worksheets of literary devices can help you get your creative juices flowing.

For kids

Find a favorite children’s poet, such as Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl.

Act out a poem. Sing a poem. Find different ways of enjoying poetry!

Write a haiku. A traditional form of Japanese poem with a 5-7-5 syllable pattern, writing a haiku can be easy and fun.

Write an acrostic poem. You can start with your own name, but branch out to anything you like or enjoy.
This is article is a part of IAM Lab’s regularly updated COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide. Be sure to check the Guide for the latest, evidence-based tips on how the arts can support our wellbeing during the pandemic.

We would also like to hear from you: Are you, your loved ones or colleagues dealing with specific issues and want to learn more about art-based solutions? Are you already using the arts to help you cope?

Please share your thoughts, ideas and concerns with us at covid19arts@artsandmindlab.org. Be well and stay safe.

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Lead Image: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II / Flickr

Written and reported by IAM Lab Communications Specialist Richard Sima. Richard received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins and is a science writer living in Baltimore, Maryland.

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