Implicit detection of poetic harmony by the naïve brain

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The power of poetry is universally acknowledged, but it is debatable whether its
appreciation is reserved for experts. Here, we show that readers with no particular knowledge of a traditional form of Welsh poetry unconsciously distinguish phrases conforming to its complex poetic construction rules from those that violate them.
We studied the brain response of native speakers of Welsh as they read meaningful sentences ending in a word that either complied with strict poetic construction rules, violated rules of consonantal repetition, violated stress pattern, or violated both these constraints. Upon reading the last word of each sentence, participants indicated sentence acceptability. As expected, our inexperienced participants did not explicitly distinguish between sentences that conformed to the poetic rules from those that violated them. However, in the case of orthodox sentences, the critical word elicited a distinctive brain response characteristic of target detection –the P3b– as compared to
the other conditions, showing that speakers of Welsh with no expertise of this particular form of poetry implicitly detect poetic harmony. These results show for the first time that before we even consider literal meaning, the musical properties of poetry speak to the human mind in ways that escape consciousness.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1859
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 25 Nov 2016

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