Poetry Lights Up Your Brain Like a Favorite Song, fMRI Shows

Reading self-selected poetry (that you love) activates brain regions like music.

Posted Mar 12, 2017

Source: dny3d/Shutterstock

A new study from McGill University reports that listening to snippets of happy or peaceful music prompted study participants to recall vivid positive memories. Conversely, listening to sad or emotionally scary music (chosen by the researchers) caused study participants to recall negative autobiographical memories.

The February 2017 study, “More Than a Feeling: Emotional Cues Impact the Access and Experience of Autobiographical Memories,” was published in the journal Memory & Cognition.

For this study, the Canadian researchers tested how musical cues from two different aspects of emotion—valence (positive and negative) and arousal (high and low)—influence the way that people recall autobiographical memories. Musical snippets were grouped into four retrieval cues: happy (positive, high arousal), peaceful (positive, low arousal), scary (negative, high arousal), and sad (negative, low arousal).

While listening to the musical selections, participants were asked to recall autobiographical memories from specific events in which they were personally involved and that lasted less than one day. As soon as a memory came to mind, participants pressed a computer key and typed in their accessed memory.

The researchers found that memories were accessed most quickly and vividly based on musical cues that were high in arousal, positive in emotion, and classified as "happy." The relationship between the type of musical cue and whether it triggered the remembrance of a positive or a negative memory was also noted. As would be expected, scary music often triggered anxious memories and sad music generally triggered memories of despair or heartbreak.

Obviously, everybody has particular songs from your past that evoke strong positive or negative emotional responses and autobiographical memories. When I first read about this study, I was excited to learn that researchers had finally unearthed empirical evidence that corroborated something I discovered anecdotally in the summer of 1975, when I was 9 years old and went to see the movie Jaws.  

Prior to seeing this Steven Spielberg blockbuster with the marketing tagline "See it before you go swimming...You'll never go in the water again!" I was an innocent youngster who loved going to the beach and swimming in the ocean while humming bubbly, carefree Beach Boys pop songs such as "Surfin' U.S.A." or "Fun, Fun, Fun.

Unfortunately, after seeing Jaws everything changed. I developed a phobia about swimming in the ocean, which led to a fear-based avoidance behavior of never going into the ocean throughout my adolescence and young adulthood.

Ultimately, it was John Williams' soundtrack to Jaws that embedded the primal fear of swimming in the ocean. Just the smell of the sea and sand could create flashbacks to the horror film anytime I was at the water's edge ... much like the screeching violins in Psycho, prior to Janet Leigh being stabbed in the shower might cue fear about entering creepy motels. 

Of course, Spielberg's terrifying cinematic technique of positioning the movie-goer in the vantage point of sharks' eyes prior to attacking a silhouetted victim swimming at the surface of the water created powerful visuals to go along with Williams' soundtrack. This double whammy created indelible scary "music-based memories" about open water swimming that have never really gone away.

For many years after seeing Jaws, anytime I got knee-deep in water and began to wade in deeper, I'd recall Roy Scheider asking the marine biology expert, "Is it true that most people get attacked by sharks in about three feet of water, about ten feet from the beach?" And the "Yes" response... then I'd start hearing the Jaws theme playing in the back of head, feel the early warning signs of physiological panic attack, and run back to the safety of my beach blanket under an umbrella. My shark phobia became a really big problem when I decided to become an Ironman triathlete because the swim-bike-run event almost always requires doing the swim leg in the ocean, not a lake.

To add insult to injury, many of the international Ironman races I competed in on the triathlon circuit were held in places that are notorious for being "breeding grounds" for Great White sharks, such as Gordon's Bay in South Africa and the Australian coastline.

Needless to say, my childhood phobia that was sparked by seeing Jaws haunted me anytime I needed to dip my toes in the ocean to train and/or compete for the 2.4-mile open water swim of an Ironman triathlon. I knew I needed to find a way to use other music to create positive associations with swimming in the ocean to overcome my fear... 

"Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything."  — Plato

The first thing that sprung to mind when I read the new study from McGill about happy vs. scary music this morning was my discovery in the early 1990s that I could use music and visual imagery that I associated with the ocean and swimming—but that made me feel happy—as a substitute to block out the Jaws music and the visuals of myself from below the surface about to be eaten by a shark that automatically filled my mind anytime I swam in the ocean.

Choosing specific songs with strong emotional cues for a playlist or mixed tape—that would become a soundtrack full of anthems that optimized my competitive "sports mindset"—was always a part of my winning formula since the beginning of my athletic career

As a triathlete, I'm indebted to Herb Ritts and Madonna's video "Cherish" for helping me get over my phobia of open water swimming. Without the beautiful and joy-filled swimming images and melody of this music video, my fear of sharks may have prevented me from going on to compete internationally as an Ironman triathlete and to win races such as the Triple Ironman (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run done nonstop). I won the Triple Ironman three years in a row, my fastest time was a record-breaking 38 hours and 47 minutes. 

To overcome my fear of sharks, I developed a ritual of taking my Walkman with me to the starting line of every triathlon and listening to songs from the Like a Prayer album before checking-in my race bag. I would purposely cue up the song "Cherish" and visualize Herb Ritts' video before the swim. While swimming, I'd hum the song and pretend that I was at Paradise Cove Beach in Malibu where the video was filmed, far away from shark infested waters of whatever continent I was actually on. I would also recite a stanza from the Emily Dickinson poem (656),

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

For some reason, this combination of poetry and pop music shifted my mindset and gave me the peace of mind and courage enough to get in the water. Throughout every open water Ironman swim, I would pretend I had a mermaid tail and hum "Cherish" to keep the John Williams' Jaws music and Great White sharks from entering my mind.

For me, these two musical examples ("Cherish" and Jaws) are exhibit A and B of the happiest and the scariest music in my memory banks. What songs evoke this spectrum of emotions and autobiographical memories for you? Does hearing certain songs transport you back in time to a situation when you felt high arousal of fear or happiness?

"There's comfort in melancholy."   — Joni Mitchell ("Hejira")

The McGill findings dovetail with a 2014 study from the Psychology of Music journal which reported that 'beautiful but sad' music caused people to reminisce in a way that is bittersweet but can actually help people feel better when they were feeling blue. This study investigated the therapeutic effects of what the researchers described as "Self-Identified Sad Music."

Joni Mitchell inadvertently touches on this phenomenon in her beautiful but sad song "Hejira" in which she sings "There's comfort in melancholy. When there's no need to explain. It's just as natural as the weather. In this moody sky today." 

Along these lines, as an ultra-endurance athlete, I learned early on in my career that even sad music could be an invaluable tool for creating self-regulated target mindsets. The timing of my transition from a short-distance runner to longer distances races coincided with the release of Madonna's Like a Prayer album which has songs that cover a broad range of emotional territory and a spectrum of low and high arousal. 

I have such vivid memories of buying the Like a Prayer vinyl album, cassette, and CD at Tower Records on 4th on Broadway on an unseasonably warm, sunny spring day in March of 1989. I had been eagerly anticipating this album for months. That morning, I put on some Coppertone before leaving my West Village apartment to walk over to the East Village. The smell of sunscreen always reminds me of clear blue skies and summertime, which puts me in a good mood. 

"Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.” ― Helen Keller

Prior to buying my trove of Like a Prayer formats, I was unaware that Madonna was obsessed with the smell of patchouli while writing and recording this album to such a degree that she insisted that Sire Records infuse the paper sleeves of the CD, vinyl LP, and cassette with this poignant and pungent scent. I've always had a love-hate relationship with patchouli, but as a "potent wizard" it always transports me back in time, like a madeleine cookie dipped in tea for the narrator in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past

As I peeled the shrink wrap off the cassette box, the unexpected smell of patchouli wafted through the air, stuck to my fingertips, and mixed with the smell of Coppertone on my skin. It was a full-bodied sensory experience on an auditory and olfactory level to have this scent wafting through the Manhattan air and hearing these songs for the first time—especially tracks such as "Dear Jessie" which evokes a Sgt. Pepper's era Beatles-esque psychedelic imagery and sound.

I had brought my Walkman with me to Tower Records so I could hear the new material on Like a Prayer the minute I left the store.  As I walked over to the Printing House gym on Hudson Street to workout, I listened to side A of the cassette which ends with "Promise to Try." The first time I ever heard "Cherish" (which is the first song on Side B of the cassette and LP) I was on the top floor of the Printing House building running full speed on the treadmill while overlooking the Statue of Liberty and the glistening water of the Hudson River. I felt such a rush of ecstatic happiness the moment I first heard this song—I thought I was going to explode with joy and wished the treadmill belt could move faster. To this day, all of the songs from Like a Prayer take me back to that day it was released, March 21, 1989.

"Promise to Try" is a tribute to Madonna's mother, who died of breast cancer when Madonna was just 5 years old. For me, this song is the ultimate 'beautiful but sad' anthem. It is both comforting and inspiring; although it's heartbreaking there is is something triumphant and life-affirming, as summed up in the wistful lyrics, "Keep your head held high, ride like the wind. Never look behind, life isn't fair. That's what you said, so I try not to care."

As cheesy, hokey, and sophomoric as it might seem, part of my pre-race athletic ritual was to recreate the experience of first hearing this music by bringing some patchouli and Coppertone to the starting line to recreate the pure bliss that was encoded in my memory banks the first time this music became a part of my autobiographical memories.

The smell of Coppertone did something to my brain chemistry that complemented the soundtracks of music or poetry in my mind. Later in my athletic career,  also had an epiphany that I could also use the smell of Coppertone as an olfactory cue to help me cope with the monotony of swimming for hours on end in the windowless basement of the Equinox gym on Greenwich Avenue in the dead of winter, when I was training for regular and Triple Ironman triathlons throughout the 1990s. 

Unfortunately, Ironman triathlon rules forbid the use of headphones during competitions. Blasting music on my Walkman (and later an iPod or smartphone) was always like rocket fuel for me during my workouts. Music became a crutch that I relied on too heavily in training. During competitions, I couldn't listen to music, which was like having my umbilical cord to my lifeline of inspiration yanked away.  

"Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” ― Robert Frost

Luckily, through trial and error, I began to realize that while I was running, biking, and swimming extremely long distances without music, random poetic phrases would bubble up and pop into my mind. I've never been much of a bookworm, but when I was in high school and college, poetry always resonated with me more than reading fictional short stories or novels—which rarely strike an emotional chord the way music does.

Once I realized that headphones had been banned from all Ironman competitions. I fastidiously started to build up an arsenal of poetic verses and other nuggets of thought that I could memorize and use in lieu of music during athletic competition.

I began transcribing various poetic stanzas that struck a particular emotional chord onto green fluorescent green notecards which I kept on my nightstand. Before going to bed, I'd flip through the notecards and memorize poetic phrases and other quotations. During athletic events, I could keep myself entertained and self-regulate my explanatory style by reciting poems. I used this technique to create an optimistic and upbeat mood during sports competitions, just like I used music to create a specific mood during my athletic training. 

I always thought my penchant for reciting poetry was just some idiosyncratic quirk that I'd stumbled on as an athlete until I read a fascinating neuroimaging study which found that poetry can light up the brain just like a favorite song. This was an "Aha!" moment for me.

Courtesy of University of Exeter
Scientists at the University of Exeter mapped brain activity using fMRI as study participants read various types of poetry and prose.
Source: Courtesy of University of Exeter

In 2013, Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK published his groundbreaking report from "By Heart An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry," was in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. For this study, Zeman and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology to illuminate which parts of the brain are activated when someone is reading various types of literature.

Brain activity was scanned inside the fMRI when study participants were reading four different types of poetry and prose: (1) very dry and boring text (such as an excerpt from a heating installation manual); (2) evocative passages from various novels; (3) easy and difficult sonnets chosen by the researchers; (4) study participant’s favorite poetry that they knew by heart.

As would be expected, the team found that neural activity in the "reading network" of brain areas was activated in response to any type of written material.

However, of these four different types of literature, only self-selected poetry that resonated emotionally with a study participant caused the brain to light up in the fMRI as if he or she was listening to music that struck a deep emotional chord. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only study to specifically examine differing responses to poetry and prose inside an fMRI.

When I read this study a few years ago, it jumped out at me for a variety of personal reasons mentioned above in terms of optiming my athletic performance. Additionally, when I was writing The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (St. Martin's Press), my very patient and brilliant editor, Diane Reverand—along with book designer Gretchen Achilles—worked tirelessly with me to infuse poetic verses (and quotations that struck an emotional chord like poetry) in between my prose. Flip-flopping between poetry and prose was something that felt right to me, but now I realize that it also illustrated how my brain worked and that I was trying to infuse the musicality of poetry into the manuscript. 

One of my favorite poets is Henry Rago. He began writing poetry when he was 16 and was the editor of Poetry Magazine from 1955-1969. Rago only published one book of poems, A Sky of Late Summer (Macmillan). Stanley Kunitz (who wrote one of my favorite poems, "Touch Me" with the famous line, "What makes the engine go? Desire, Desire, Desire. The longing for the dance stirs in the buried life.") once said, 

“Henry Rago’s special gift permits him to strike for the absolute as an act of meditation, and yet to remain wakeful for the surprises of poetry. The best of his poems, of which “The Knowledge of Light” is representative, reach an astonishing depth of simplicity. They achieve a kind of claritas, the splendor of the true."

Certain stanzas from "The Knowledge of Light" resonate more deeply with me than others depending on the time and place I'm at in my life. In 2006, as I was completing the manuscript for The Athlete's Way, I approached the estate of Henry Rago for permission to sprinkle stanzas from this poem throughout my book. Generously, Henry Rago's daughter, Christina, kindly agreed to allow me to insert random chunks of her father's poem within my prose if I agreed to include the poem in its entirety at the end of the book.

"The Knowledge of Light" appears on pp. 338-339 of The Athlete's Way. If you are unfamiliar with this poem and are reading it now for the first time, I'd recommend taking a few minutes to memorize a stanza or two that resonate with you. Reciting these words anytime you want to activate brain regions like a favorite song might come in handy at some day.

The Knowledge of Light
Henry Rago


The willow shining
From the quick rain,
Leaf, cloud, early star
Are shaken light in this water:
The tremolo of their brightness: light
Sung back in light.


The deep shines with the deep.
A deeper sky utters the sky.
These words waver
Between sky and sky.


A tree laced of many rivers
Flows into a wide slow darkness
And below the darkness, flowers again
To many rivers, that are a tree.


Wrung from silence
Sung in lightning
From stone sprung
The quickening signs
lines quivered
Numbers flew

Darkness beheld
Darkness and told
Each in each
The depths not darkness.


To know
Meaning to celebrate:
To become “in some way”
Another; to come
To a becoming:
To have come well.


Earth Awakens to the work it wakens.

These dancers turn half-dreaming
Each to the other, glide
Each from a pool of light on either side
Below the dark wings
And flutter slowly, come slowly
Or drift farther again,
Turn on a single note, lifted,
And leap, their whirling lines
Astonished into one lucidity:
Multiples of the arc.

Shapes of the heart!


The year waits at the depth of summer.
The air, the island, and the water
Are drawn to evening. The long month
Is lost in the evening.

If words could hold this world
They would bend themselves to one
Transparency; if this
Depth of the year, arch of the hour
Came perfect to 
The curving of one word
The sound would widen, quietly as from crystal,
Sphere into sphere: candor
Answering the child’s candor
Beyond the child’s question.

Even if you're not a poetry lover, hopefully, reading about the link between all types of music—from scary to happy, peaceful, and "Self-Identified Sad Music" will motivate you to use music along with any self-selected poetic verse that resonates with you, to achieve self-regulatory goals and better moods. 


Zeman, Adam; Milton, F.; Smith, A.; Rylance, R. By Heart An fMRI Study of Brain Activation by Poetry and Prose. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2013; 20 (9-10): 132-158(27)

Sheldon, S. & Donahue, J. (2017). More than a feeling: Emotional cues impact the access and experience of autobiographical memories, Memory & Cognition, DOI: 10.3758/s13421-017-0691-6

A. J. M. Van den Tol, J. Edwards. Listening to sad music in adverse situations: How music selection strategies relate to self-regulatory goals, listening effects, and mood enhancement. Psychology of Music, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0305735613517410

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