Blog North Awards shortlisted

Blog North Awards shortlisted

Monday, 27 January 2014

Brains and hearts

Last week I was lucky enough to be on the judging panel for the Sheffield round of 'Poetry by Heart', a competition in which students memorise and perform poems by other writers. The passion, wit and personality all the competitors brought to their task reminded me what a rare and brilliant thing it is to learn a poem by heart - in doing so, the poem becomes a part of you. To learn a poem is to 'own' a work of art and - somehow - make it yours.

Recent neuroaesthetic research by Edward Vessel and his team at New York University’s Center for Brain Imaging suggests that, at a neural level, identifying strongly with a work of art really does change you and affect your sense of self. Vessel's research examines how the brain’s default mode network (DMN) - usually inactive when you are engaged with the outside world -responds to particular works of art that especially move you. Since the DMN is  alsoconnected to introspection and the self, this could mean that the feeling that a work of art is intensely personal (that sense that a poem or song was 'written for you', for example) activates parts of the brain strongly associated with personal identities and, as such, changes our sense of who we are. As Vessel et al put it, this process of access to the DMN "...allows the representation of the artwork to interact with the neural processes related to the self,
affect them, and possibly even be incorporated into them (i.e., into the future, evolving representation of self).”

It's important to stress that Vessel's research was very small scale, using a tiny sample - the research team tested 16 participants with 109 two-dimensional artworks ranging from the 15th to 20th century, sourced from museum collections and looked for patterns in people's personal, aesthetic reactions to the artworks and how the DMN activated accordingly.

Intuitively though, the results of Vessel's research hardly seem surprising. When we read a poem that moves us, we are likely to go back to it, remember it, internalise aspects of its narrative or perceived meaning in ways which might subtly affect our opinions or our outlook on the world.

As for me, the only poem I really know by heart is Robert Frost's haunting 'Fire and Ice'. Ever since I
read and learned it, it's made me think about hatred, desire and the impact of collective emotions in a
different way. The way Frost's poem made me think about the world is something I go back to again and again, even when I'm relating to other works of art - I thought about 'Fire and Ice' recently, for example, when watching Steve McQueen's harrowing film '12 Years a Slave'. In this, learning Frost's poem has changed my heart as much as my brain.


  1. Oh, Helen, I really do agree about the benefits (that suggests something worthy and businesslike, I mean wonders) of learning poems by heart. I had to do this at school, and have been grateful ever since. Indeed, it's true — one has a special relationship with the implanted poem forever. I remember learning Thomas Hood's 'I Remember, I Remember', Blake's 'The Tyger', Wordsworth's 'I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud', some Shakespeare soliloquies from 'Henry V' and others...

  2. Helen,
    Check out this cool sonnet about poetry "by heart"....
    A Sonnet: By Heart