It’s unfortunate but true, and probably due to our tech-driven, scientifically orientated world, that when I tell people I write poetry for a living, I’m likely to hear the question, “But what’s it for? What does it do?” And that’s a puzzler when it comes to literature and poetry. To those of us who love it, it’s perfectly obvious what it’s “for.”
But just in case you’re asked that question about poetry any time soon, and you want to have something to say without spluttering in indignation, I thought I’d throw together a few little-know facts about the effect poetry has on children’s brains (and ours, for that matter).
Left brain, right brain… Uh, what?
We’ve all heard this division-of-the-brain theory many times. Personally, I can never remember which way around it goes, but then that probably means I’m a bit of a right-brainer! It all has to do with the way our brains process information, and which tasks get assigned to which parts of the brain, with the right brain supposedly being more ‘artistic,’ and the left being more of a computer.
Neuroscientists are now learning that, although some things can be fairly well localized, like motor function, our intellectual abilities are quite a bit more complex. For instance, did you know that your ability to speak is stored somewhere completely different from your ability to sing? There are documented cases of people who have become aphasic (unable to speak at all) but who can communicate well if they just SING the words out!
Our memories, our verbal skills and our understanding of meaning are spread through different areas of our brains, a complex network that we draw on without even – well – thinking! And this is where poetry finds a remarkable niche. Why do children memorize far more easily when they are given information in rhyme? Why do YOU still remember songs and poems that you learned when you were small? You probably even still use some of those mnemonics, and you’re definitely passing them on to your own children, helping them to learn nursery rhymes and the letters of the alphabet that way.
And beyond the obvious aid to memory, poetry also offers an enhanced understanding of language. It forces our brains to think laterally, to join together different sensory impressions and associations. That kind of layered thinking has been shown, in live MRI tests, to wake up multiple areas of the brain at once. For kids who struggle with language skills, poetry offers an engaging, memorable stealth technology, a way of getting past the brain’s standard verbal filters to a deeper language network.
It would seem that our brains have been programmed for this kind of thinking since before anyone even thought of writing anything down. After all, how are you going to pass down the tribe’s history to the next generation, unless you turn it into an epic song or poem that people can remember, one verse at a time? Entire moral codes and genealogies were passed on in this manner until came up with the written word, and though we can now access all kinds of words on the internet with a flick of a mouse button, our brains still crave the stimulus that poetry gives, especially when it’s spoken out loud.
Those who are ‘left-brainers’ can definitely use the relaxation that the rhythmic word can bring, and use it to unlock lateral thinking. And ‘right-brainers’ can harness the power of rhyme to trick their brains into remembering all kinds of things that they shy away from, like the periodic table, or the names of dead presidents. Our two brains WANT to work together, and poetry is the perfect bridge to make that possible.