Monday, 11 April 2011

Physical Explanations of Form and Beauty in Poetry

I wrote this a decade ago. I've updated the references section and have added one 2011 medical quote. I know I should add more, but I'm still thinking about it ...

Three strands of scientific research are rapidly encroaching on aesthetics

  • Evolutionary psychology is being used to explain some of our aesthetic tastes. Typical of such arguments is the assertion that the interest in certain curves is explained by noting that a man looking for a mate would be programmed to notice such things.
  • Alongside such discussion are observations of universals in aesthetic tastes. Proportions like the "Golden Mean" have been shown to crop up in many circumstances - for instance as the ratio between the octet and sestet of a sonnet. Work in complexity theory is beginning to explain these apparent coincidences.
  • A third factor relates to advances in physiology; the ability to study brain activity in real time using MRI.

Such discussion is not without its critics - the conclusions are often untestable, and do not deal with very specific features. Besides, the fact that one can make someone see an apple by applying an electrode to a certain part of the brain doesn't mean that apples are "just" in the brain, and similarly for beauty or God. However, it's worth pursuing the idea that cognitive processes that had initially evolved for non-aesthetic reasons are now being use for a different end - it avoids having to justify the creation of new brain functionality. Some tentative observations might be made about the implications for poetry.

The brain's thought areas grew from the visual cortex, so it's tempting to surmise that some thought processing might structurally resemble vision processing (indeed, recent research suggests that "people with autism concentrate more brain resources in the areas associated with visual detection and identification. In doing this, they have less activity in the areas used to plan and control thoughts and actions" - 2011). The mechanisms of perception are being slowly untangled by physiologists. Vision works by low-level detection of features - edges, movement, color. Recent work has highlighted the independence of these features. A brain-damaged patient described her inability to see individual colors as a part of objects; she saw the colors floating in separate planes before her eyes. Carbon monoxide poisoning can cause the loss of color constancy and with it a separation of the sense of color and form.

Functional specialization seems to be more widespread phenomenon than hitherto assumed. These separate experiences are combined into objects using various techniques - perhaps using some basic rules analogous to Chomsky's deep grammar for languages (see Donald Hoffman) coupled with acquired rules of thumb. There seems to be a requirement for early exposure to experiences. Cases of people who are born blind and later acquire sight seem to show that our visual recognition of distance, size, and the three dimensions are acquired early in life when visual stimuli are integrated with our sense of touch, a sense that generally depends on movement. Also the processing isn't one-way - the higher levels affect the lower levels too. This is partly dependent on the cultural and sociological context - whether we interpret a bright light in the sky as an angel, a UFO or a plane will affect the sense-data we register. We don't hear engines if we want to see an angel. The significance of what we see will likewise depend partly on our state of mind. Brain events can also play a part - in the oldest part of the brain are parts which trigger significance. These can be activated by electrodes or mild epileptic fits but also by rhythm and chanting used in combination with reduced higher brain function.

Our higher levels also stabilise objects - as we move around an object the image changes but we know the object doesn't. Just as we rely on implicit knowledge in our perception of objects and faces, so too, the brain creates a sense of "color constancy": no matter what the lighting conditions - bright sunlight, filtered sunlight, or artificial lighting - colors remain more or less the same.

Image processing uses multiple strategies to interpret and stabilise the world - some innate, some dormant until triggered by experience, some learnt. The higher levels are more flexible, able to adapt to rapid cultural charge, though there's still a wish to interpret and stabilise, to separate the constants from the incidental. Also politics and fashion play a part in the relative attention paid to different art-forms, and different forms within each art.

Forms are a higher-level attempt to stabilize. As an example of a form let's take the sonnet, which has weathered the storms of fashions. Such forms are criticised as being artificial and arbitrary, but they illustrate another way that low-level details may act in combination to create unity

  • Bottom-up rules - It's possible that a form may grow from simple localised rules based around iambs. A form needn't imply a hierarchical controlling agency - simple, low-level, short-sighted rules can be sufficient (birds in formation, a tree's branch structure). Complexity theory offers examples.
  • Phase-locking - things that oscillate tend towards harmonising (people walking across bridges, groups of menstruating women). There's a tendency to standardise nearly-matching objects, so iambic lines could tend towards pentameters.
  • Randomness - Room for low-level, constrained randomness is built into the design of natural objects - e.g. leaves. This is partly a consequence of nature's laziness but it also a useful survival mechanism. "the capacities for randomness may have been amplified into human creativity through sexual and social selection (Miller). In sonnets an element of constrained randomness can be introduced using rhyming dictionaries.

It's common for natural processes to share a basic design and build variants upon it - changing the scale, the parameters, or the low-level details. These mechanisms are implicated in the development of the sonnet, which can be considered as an organic form that slowly developed by natural selection. It's flexible enough to be used by ee cummings, enduring because its flexible, bending rather than breaking as fashions change. In this sense it's a more "natural" form than the Acrostic, for instance.

Forms emerge and categories develop as short-cuts towards comprehension. The clearer the separation between categories the more efficient they are. Species tend to separate - there's not a smooth spectrum between reptiles and mammals. Art abounds in genres which people try to keep distinct, and now there's an experimental way to measure the closeness of genres. Experiments on artists have shown that abstract and representational art cause very different patterns of brain activity; different schools of art each seem to have their own neurological basis. It may be that different types of poetry are neurologically diverse too - some types of poetry may be closer to music than to other types of poetry - in an objective sense more musical. Genres may transcend media boundaries.

When critics analyse a poem, perhaps their approach shouldn't be considered artificial. They categorise as an initial stage of recognition, in the way humans do. They may be breaking a poem into its constituents the way the brain naturally does (though we don't have the self-awareness to realise this). When these individual insights are combined into a "reading", critics are doing what readers naturally do. Readers will be differently sensitive to factors and will have different strategies for combining them, strategies shaped by what they were exposed to when young. Cultural forces or random discharges in the brain affect interpretations.

The units of poetry perception are as yet unclear. In visual processing brain injury and MRI scanning were helpful. In poetry, the critical methods may indicate the basics, and there are styles of poetry (Vispo?) which may focus strongly on one unit - sound, typography, etc.

Our increasing knowledge of language processing and memory makes possible a better understanding of terms used in poetry aesthetics. For example, Tsur explains "metrical tension" as an effect of our limited STM ability that causes recoding of the line to use memory space better. Certain poetry evokes non-linear emotion by establishing a "definite spatial setting" thereby channeling through the right-hemisphere.

Some of the methods of integration and categorisation are better known, and are exploited. Evolution never does any more than necessary. As sight evolved, there was no survival advantage in being able to deal with situations that didn't happen in real life - our eyes might be able to help us distinguish friend from foe at a hundred yards, but they're easily tricked. Thought and language processing is even more complex than visual processing, so perhaps it's not surprising that poetry can create an illusion of depth and meaning by short-circuiting the normal routes (much as stereograms give the effect of depth though they have none), exploiting a loop-hole that evolution has left open. As with stereograms, surface obscurity may be necessary to produce the effect, and there's a lot of skill involved in producing an effective illusion. Indeed, I'd say that not merely skill is involved; it's an art.

Illusion, paradox and compression can overload and confuse our powers of comprehension. Jokes and obscurity can disrupted processing. The mixing of different levels of processing disrupts too.

On the basis of the above we might hazard a guess at how to design a successful piece of writing. Ideally it needs to

  • be attached to a cultural force (Pop music, Academia)
  • be different enough to attract attention, but be familiar enough so that current interpretative strategies can be used
  • stimulate parts of the brain traditionally associated with poetry and significance
  • de-stimulate other parts of the brain - the brain's tuned to useful things, so it helps if the poetry serves no purpose. Bland presentation (no colour, no background music) helps
  • initiatiate a positive feedback loop - be memorable. Most easily done with sound, though triggered emotions can help.
  • be hard to exhaust - it needs to be unresolvable, in order to remain satisfying. Paradox, something unfinished or non-linear so the reader never reaches the end.
  • Non-linear - to invite processing from non-linear processing regions of the brain


  • Gigerenzer, G. & Goldstein, D. G. (1996). "Reasoning the fast and frugal way: Models of bounded rationality", Psychological Review, 103, 650-669.
  • "The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of consciousness" - Antonio Damasio
  • "The Mating Mind", G.Miller, 2000
  • "Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics", R.Tsur, 1992
  • "Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain" - Semir Zeki
  • "Visual Intelligence: How we create what we see" - Donald Hoffman
  • Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form by William L. Benzon ("My starting point, rather, is with the newer psychologies and how they can help us analyze the formal aspect of literary works. ... the larger point is simply that literary behavior is learned behavior with roots in early interactions between the infant and others. The brain is trained in the ways of stories and rhymes")
  • Poetry as Right-Hemispheric Language by Julie Kane
  • Aspects of Cognitive Poetics by Reuven Tsur
  • The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time (Frederick Turner, Ernst Poppel)
  • The Lyric Principle (by Don Paterson)

1 comment:

  1. Is that what this amounts to? Designing a "successful piece of writing"? So writing has become reduced to engineering? That everything can be explained, or explained away, by making it physically definable and productive in an engineering sense?

    No thanks.

    Fortunately, none of this is true. No one has ever come up with a formula for writing success, or successful writing, and the history of writing is littered with just such failed attempts that no one ever reads anymore, or wants to.