This Is Your Brain On Poetry

I'm not big on biological reductionism when it comes to the arts, especially when the evolutionary biologists start talking about the "evolutionary value" of this or that cultural practice, making up their little just-so stories. But I was intrigued the other day by this article describing the way the brain processes jokes. It occurred to me long ago that a lyric poem and a joke share certain structural similarities -- ones Michael Theune could no doubt elucidate in detail -- but in simplest form, the punchline, the payoff, the turn or the pivot that surprises. So here we have the human brain, which loves pattern and repetition, music:

This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life's offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. "The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination," said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. "From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear."

But the joke, which the brain also likes, depends on variation and timing and detail:

Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. "Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another," said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation." "What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember."

In poetry, then, one is forcing the brain to operate on more than one level. In an older paradigm -- that of the left and right hemispheres of the brain -- it was possible to imagine something similar going on: the left hemisphere's interest in and control over meter and pattern combining with the right hemisphere's interest in novel arrangements. The physiology is of course much more complicated that the metaphor, but the metaphor is still suggestive. Poetry integrates different kinds of cognition, even kinds that might seem to be in conflict with each other. A good joke or a good poem has a ground of pattern against which a specific path is picked out and that path has turns and surprises concealed in it, sometimes using the camouflage of pattern to conceal itself until the right moment. Question: What does the surprise -- the punchline -- yield in terms of knowledge? Insight? Understanding? Can a punchline or a surprise be empty? __________________________ Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain On Poetry”

  1. This is a terrific article, Joseph–thank you for pointing me (and your other readers!) to it.

    I don’t have much on comedic structures up on the Structure & Surprise blog yet, but I hope to in the near future–there certainly are predictable structures in comedy (the book Comedy Writing Secrets has many of them, and so do the footnotes at the bottom of the Todd Pruzan short story in Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, a selection of humor writing from McSweeney’s). Predictable structures, yes, but structures that are used, that HAVE to be used (in order to achieve comedic effect) to create surprise, or, as the article puts it so nicely, punch the lights out of do re mi.


  2. Mike, what interested me as a poet is the play between one aspect of what you in your work call “form” — in particular, metrical and stanza and rhyme patterns, which is the kind of thing poetry uses to get itself stuck in the brain — and the larger shapes you call “structure,” which would appear to be doing something completely different, even something at cross purposes with “form.” I remember years ago thinking something similar after reading about the left and right hemisphere paradigm of brain function (which I understand has not retained much favor among neurologists & etc.).

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