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,
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.
Steve McQueen's harrowing film '12 Years a Slave'. In this, learning Frost's poem has changed my heart as much as my brain.