The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry,
psychophysiology and compositional principles
and Winfried Menninghaus
Department of Language and Literature, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, 60322 Frankfurt am
Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universit€
at Berlin, 14195 Berlin, Germany,
Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, University of Bergen, 5020 Bergen, Norway, and
Experimental Psychology Unit, Helmut Schmidt University/University of the Federal Armed Forces Hamburg,
22043 Hamburg, Germany
Correspondence should be addressed to Eugen Wassiliwizky, Department of Language and Literature, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics,
Gru¨ neburgweg 14, 60322 Frankfurt am Main, Germany. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is a common experience—and well established experimentally—that music can engage us emotionally in a compelling
manner. The mechanisms underlying these experiences are receiving increasing scrutiny. However, the extent to which
other domains of aesthetic experience can similarly elicit strong emotions is unknown. Using psychophysiology, neuro-
imaging and behavioral responses, we show that recited poetry can act as a powerful stimulus for eliciting peak emotional
responses, including chills and objectively measurable goosebumps that engage the primary reward circuitry. Importantly,
while these responses to poetry are largely analogous to those found for music, their neural underpinnings show important
differences, speciﬁcally with regard to the crucial role of the nucleus accumbens. We also go beyond replicating previous
music-related studies by showing that peak aesthetic pleasure can co-occur with physiological markers of negative affect.
Finally, the distribution of chills across the trajectory of poems provides insight into compositional principles of poetry.
Key words: neuroaesthetics; aesthetic reward; nucleus accumbens; poetic language; chills; piloerection
Inana’s holy heart has been assuaged.
The light was sweet for her,
delight extended over her,
she was full of fairest beauty.
— Enheduanna, 2285–2250 B.C.
Dating back some 4300 years, written poetry is the most ancient
record of human literature. The roots of poetry are likely to reach
even much further into the past, to a time when literacy had not
yet evolved and poems were passed down in oral traditions. The
fact that poetry has accompanied humankind over such a long
period suggests a strong grip on human cognition and emotion.
In contrast to music (Koelsch, 2014), the psychological mech-
anisms and neural foundations of poetry are not well understood
(Jacobs, 2015). Recent brain imaging studies have begun to eluci-
date some aspects of poetic language, specifically, the benefits of
literary awareness for cognition (O’Sullivan et al., 2015), neural cor-
relates of perceived literariness in poetry as compared to prose
(Zeman et al., 2013) and the brain mechanisms involved in poetry
composition (Liu et al., 2015). However, the emotional impact of
poetic language and the associated aesthetic pleasure—which lie at
the very heart of the human motivation to engage in art reception
in the first place—have not been investigated with psychophysio-
logical or neuroscientific approaches. It therefore remains
Received: 17 January 2017; Revised: 27 March 2017; Accepted: 23 April 2017
CThe Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press.
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Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2017, 1229–1240
Advance Access Publication Date: 28 April 2017
unknown (i) whether poetry is actually capable of eliciting strong
pleasurable emotions, (ii) which underlying brain structures gov-
ern these responses and whether they resemble those found for
pleasurable emotional responses to music and (iii) which specific
features of poetic language drive these responses.
To address these questions, we performed a series of studies in
which we collected psychophysiological measures, neuroimaging
data and behavioral responses. The purpose of our first study was
to investigate the emotional impact of recited poetry on the electro-
dermal and cardiovascular responses of the autonomous nervous
system (Supplementary Figure S1A). Arousal of these domains is
widely acknowledged to be an inherent component of emotional
episodes (for a review, see Kreibig, 2010). Moreover, there is ample
evidence that subjective feelings of chills (Goldstein, 1980;
Panksepp, 1995; Blood and Zatorre, 2001; Rickard, 2004; Grewe et al.,
2007; Salimpoor et al., 2009, 2011) as well as objectively measurable
piloerection, i.e. goosebumps (Benedek and Kaernbach, 2011;
Sumpf et al., 2015), constitute emotional peaks of music reception.
Adapting this approach for research on poetry, we collected both
continuous piloerection data using a video recording device (the
‘goosecam’, Benedek et al., 2010; Supplementary Figure S1B) and
self-reported feelings of chills as indicated by button presses. By
focusing on such peak emotional responses, we put the emotional
capacities of poetic language to a rigorous test.
In addition to psychophysiological responses, we investigated
motoric facial expression which is another major component of
emotion processing (Ekman, 1993). To this end, we recorded the
electromyographic activity over the corrugator supercilii and zygo-
maticus major (Fridlund and Cacioppo, 1986; Supplementary
Figure S1C). Unintentional activations of these antagonistic facial
muscles have been shown to indicate negative and positive affect,
respectively (for a review, see Bradley and Lang, 2007). We ex-
pected that these measures would put us in a position to address a
pressing question in research on peak emotional experiences. On
the one hand, chills are highly pleasurable experiences (Goldsetin,
1980; Blood and Zatorre, 2001; Grewe et al., 2007; Salimpoor et al.,
2009, 2011; Benedek and Kaernbach, 2011; Sumpf et al., 2015);
accordingly, one would expect increased levels of zygomatic activ-
ity in moments of chills. On the other hand, there is substantial
evidence that sadness is an even more powerful elicitor of chills
than joy (Panksepp, 1995; Scherer and Zentner, 2001; Maruskin
et al., 2012; Wassiliwizky et al., 2015). Based on these latter findings,
one would expect high corrugator activity in episodes of chills.
Collecting electromyographic data from both facial muscles
allowed us to test these opposing hypotheses against each other.
Our stimulus set comprised two subsets of poems—experi-
menter-selected vs self-selected—which allowed us to compare
psychophysiological responses to relatively unfamiliar stimuli
with responses to highly familiar stimuli. The latter have been
argued to elicit maximal responses due to their perfect match
with individual preferences (Blood and Zatorre, 2001; Rickard,
2004; Grewe et al., 2007; Salimpoor et al., 2009, 2011; Benedek
and Kaernbach, 2011; Sumpf et al., 2015). Finally, we imple-
mented a repetition paradigm, i.e. presenting all stimuli twice,
in order to test whether affective responses to emotionally
powerful poems tend to erode over time.
In the psychophysiological study, 27 right-handed native German
speakers (8 males, M¼24.2 years, s.d.¼3.1) with self-reported
normal hearing were tested. Both the psychophysiological and the
subsequent neuroimaging study were conducted in accordance
with the Declaration of Helsinki and approved by the Ethics
Committee of the Department of Psychology and Educational
Sciences at Freie Universit€
at Berlin. At the end of each study, par-
ticipants were compensated with 15 EUR.
The stimulus pool included recordings of five experimenter-
selected poems from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries
(M¼175.2 s, s.d. ¼141.5) and recordings of 3–5 poems per partici-
pant (M¼99.1 s, s.d. ¼87.0) that were self-selected a few weeks
before the testing (a full list of all poems and the texts of the
experimenter-selected poems are given in Supplementary
Material). Participants were instructed to choose emotionally
powerful poems that might elicit chills or goosebumps. Audios of
the selected poems were either taken from existing commercial
CD recordings or recorded in a professional studio with profes-
sional performers. We used professional recitations of poems
rather than self-reading because precise timing is at high risk if
participants can read passages a second time. However, in order
to consolidate ourfindings, we ran a follow-up self-reading study
with a new sample of participants (reported in Supplementary
For acquisition of electrodermal activity, heart rate and facial elec-
tromyographic activity (Supplementary Figure S1A, C), a 10-chan-
nel bioamplifier, Nexus-10, including the recording software
Biotrace (Mind Media B.V., Herten, Netherlands), was used (for de-
tails on preprocessing the physiological data, see Supplementary
Material). Continuous objective measurement of piloerection was
carried out by means of a goosecam (constructed according to
Benedek et al., 2010), which captures a video of the skin surface
(Supplementary Figure S1B). The video data were analyzed offline
using the Matlab based analysis software Gooselab V1.21 (Benedek
and Kaernbach, 2011; Supplementary Figure S2). The testing began
with an initial baseline of 3 min. During the stimulus presentation,
participants were asked to monitor their bodily experiences and
to push a button with their dominant hand when they experi-
enced a chill (for the entire length of the chill).
The analysis aimed to test the differences of the physiological cor-
relates of (1) subjective chills, piloerection periods and episodes
without chills or piloerection (control time), (2) the effects of self-
vs experimenter-selected stimuli and (3) the effects of the first vs
the second presentation of the stimuli. The onset and offset
video-documented piloerection incidents defined the chill and
piloerection periods, respectively; the remaining time of the poem
presentation was regarded as control time. For each physiological
signal, a 3 22 mixed-effect analysis of variance was conducted.
To account for the nested structure of the data, linear mixed-
effect models with random intercepts for participants were tested.
Pairwise Tukey post-hoc tests (P<0.05, Bonferroni corrected) were
conducted using the least-squares means.
Occurrence of chills and goosebumps
All participants (N¼27) experienced self-reported chills during
the study, on average 1.33 chills/min/person (ranging between
1230 | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2017, Vol. 12, No. 8
0.27 and 3.64 chills/min/person, s.d. ¼0.88). Additionally, the
video recordings for 11 participants (40.7% of the sample)
showed objective evidence for piloerection. This is consistent
with the percentages found for music (40%; Sumpf et al., 2015),
film soundtracks (43.1%; Benedek and Kaernbach, 2011) and
film scenes (40%; Wassiliwizky et al., 2017). To ensure that the
elicitation of chills by poetry was not limited to a special sam-
ple, we validated and extended our findings by conducting a be-
havioral follow-up study with a new sample of 30 participants
(reported in the Supplementary Material).
The results show that poetry is able to trigger not only mild af-
fective responses but also the most intense ones. Importantly,
and in disagreement with widely held assumptions (Blood and
Zatorre, 2001; Rickard, 2004; Grewe et al., 2007; Salimpoor et al.,
2009; Benedek and Kaernbach, 2011; Salimpoor et al., 2011; Sumpf
et al., 2015), not only did the self-selected (highly familiar) stimuli
elicit chills and goosebumps, but also the experimenter-selected,
unfamiliar subset. (Ratings provided by our participants confirmed
a low level of familiarity with the experimenter-selected subset:
M¼1.79 61.80 s.d. on a 0–5 scale.)
Physiological and electromyographic correlates
Using mixed-effect analyses of variance, we compared the
physiological correlates of chills (as indicated by button presses)
with those of goosebumps (as captured by the goosecam) and
those of the exposure time spans when neither chills nor goose-
bumps were observed (control time) (Figure 1, Supplementary
Table S1A). Overall, both chills and goosebumps were associ-
ated with higher phasic electrodermal activity (pEDA) than con-
trol time responses (Figure 1A). This accords with virtually all
prior studies on chills and piloerection in response to music and
film and confirms the notion that these phenomena indicate
states of high emotional and physiological arousal (Rickard,
2004; Grewe et al., 2007; Salimpoor et al., 2009; Benedek and
Kaernbach, 2011; Salimpoor et al., 2011; Sumpf et al., 2015).
However, while most studies use the concepts of chills and
goosebumps interchangeably, we found the two responses to
differ significantly in the context of stimulus repetition.
Whereas the pEDA during chills tended to habituate consider-
ably in response to repetition for both subsets of poems, the
pEDA during piloerection showed a reverse pattern, i.e. a sensi-
tization effect (Figure 1A).
Interestingly, we found remarkably similar effects of repeated
exposure for the other domains, particularly for the corrugator ac-
tivity (Figure 1B), which is predominantly associated with negative
emotions like sadness. At same time, the results for the zygomatic
activity, indicating positive affect, turned out to have much
smaller effects and less consistency as compared to pEDA and cor-
rugator activity: both the habituation and sensitization effects
were restricted to the self-selected stimulus subset (Figure 1D).
Similarly, cardiovascular responses showed smaller and less con-
sistent effects (Figure 1C). To test the difference in activation levels
of corrugator and zygomaticus activity, we ran a multilevel regres-
sion control analysis (Supplementary Table S1B); it confirmed the
stronger activations for corrugator compared to zygomaticus ac-
tivity (F¼1885.26; P<0.001).
The greater prominence of the corrugator during chills and
goosebumps as compared to zygomatic activity is in line with
earlier reports (Panksepp, 1995; Scherer and Zentner, 2001;
Maruskin et al., 2012; Wassiliwizky et al., 2015) that attribute sad-
ness more power to trigger these responses than positive emo-
tions. At the same time, chills elicited by music have been
demonstrated to recruit deep-seated, phylogenetically ancient
core structures of the reward circuitry (Blood and Zatorre, 2001;
Salimpoor et al., 2011). At first glance, this might seem almost
paradoxical. Is it possible for poetry-elicited chills to have ac-
cess to the same deep-seated reward structures found for
music-elicited chills, even though the facial muscle data sug-
gest a strong role of negative affect? We checked this in a subse-
quent neuroimaging study that relied on the same participants
and stimuli as the first study.
Dynamics of reward
Before turning to the neuroimaging study, however, we will ad-
dress the much-debated issue of temporal patterning in peak emo-
tional moments. It has frequently been claimed by different
research groups that the build-up of emotional arousal and the ac-
companying pleasant anticipation right before the peak constitute
the underlying tension–release mechanism for chills (Grewe et al.,
2007; Salimpoor et al., 2009; Huron and Margulis, 2010; Salimpoor
et al., 2011). Collecting skin conductance data placed us in a pos-
ition to investigate how emotional arousal is built up and released
during the course of peak emotional experiences. To do this, we
computed an event-related grand average
for the skin conduct-
ance signals of all 1593 single chill periods obtained in our study.
Each of these signals was aligned at the time point of the chill but-
ton press, and the subsequent epoch was set to 6 s, conforming to
the average length of a chill in our study. Based on results reported
in the literature (Rickard, 2004; Grewe et al., 2007; Salimpoor et al.,
2009; Benedek and Kaernbach, 2011; Mas-Herrero et al.,2014),we
predicted a considerable increase in the grand average shortly after
the button press. Critically, we were also interested in the time
window before the button was pressed, and hence the anticipatory
period. Therefore, we included a preceding epoch of 6 s in the ana-
lysis (6 to 0 s). As expected, we observed a prominent increase
arising shortly after the button press. Interestingly, we found an
additional, yet smaller increase starting 4.5s before the button
press and decreasing towards the zero point (Figure 2,
Supplementary Table S2). This response pattern is markedly differ-
ent from a slow rising trend that reaches its maximum during the
chill period. It speaks in favor of an independent component of re-
ward anticipation, which we henceforth refer to as a ‘prechill’.
The distinction between an anticipatory and a consumma-
tory period, i.e. prechills and chills, has important implications
for the neural orchestration underlying the experience of re-
ward. Over the last years, neuroscientific endeavors have
largely focused on sketching precise temporal models that iden-
tify functional contributions of specific brain areas to specific
subprocesses. Using chill-inducing pieces of music, Salimpoor
et al. (2011) discovered that the two processes of reward expect-
ation vs. reward attainment could be mapped onto the func-
tions of two distinct structures in the striatum: the caudate
nucleus, which is active only shortly before the chill occurs and
returns to baseline as soon as the chill sets in, and the nucleus
accumbens (NAcc), which is only active during the time the chill
is experienced (and not before). However, a variety of other neu-
roscientific findings across different domains and species
showed the strongest activation of the NAcc during reward an-
ticipation and not reward attainment (for gustatory reward, see
O’Doherty et al., 2002; for olfactory reward, see Gottfried et al.,
2002; for erotic reward, see Knutson et al., 2008; for monetary re-
ward, see Knutson et al., 2001; Abler et al., 2006; for animal stud-
ies, see Schultz, 1998; Ikemoto and Panksepp, 1999; Phillips
1 From 27 individual event-related responses that were computed in a
first step and then averagedin a second step to a grand mean (Figure 2).
E. Wassiliwizky et al. |1231
et al., 2003). These divergent results of prior research suggest
two diverging hypotheses regarding the NAcc activity in re-
sponses to poetry. If the neural activation patterns of poetry-
elicited chills resemble those of music-elicited chills, we should
find increased activity in the NAcc in a chills >prechills con-
trast. If, instead, the effects of poetic language are in line with
the finding of the other studies mentioned above, we should
find increased activity of the NAcc in the prechills >chills
Thus, we pursued a twofold agenda in our neuroscientific
study: first, we wanted to know whether poetry-elicited chills
would recruit the mesolimbic reward circuitry (as shown for
music) despite the compelling evidence for heightened corruga-
tor activity during chill periods. Second, by contrasting prechill
periods with chill periods, we wanted to check on which side of
the divergent evidence for the NAcc involvement (anticipation
vs attainment) poetic language would lie.
A subset of the first sample, 18 right-handed native German
speakers with self-reported normal hearing (8 males,
Fig. 1. Physiological correlates of chills, piloerection, and control time. Standardized amplitudes of (A) phasic electrodermal activity, (B) electromyographic corrugator
activity, (C) heart rate and (D) electromyographic zygomaticus activity for self-selected (self) and experimenter-selected (exp) poems, for the ﬁrst and second exposure
(1,2). Note that whereas activity in chill phases tended to habituate for the second exposure, in piloerection phases it showed a sensitization effect. Bars with the same
letter are not signiﬁcantly different from each other at the 0.05 level. Solid downward arrows indicate signiﬁcant habituation effects, solid upward arrows signiﬁcant
sensitization effects (the dashed upward arrow indicates a sensitization effect that reaches signiﬁcance at the 0.1 level). Error bars indicate standard errors as esti-
mated in a multilevel mixed-effect model. (Please note that for readability, we use a smaller scaling in C and D than in A and B.).
Fig. 2. Event-related grand average, including standard error band for the skin
conductance data for all single chills, aligned at the time point of the chill but-
ton press (0 s). The grey-shaded stripes indicate intervals that differ signiﬁcantly
from the baseline (7to6 s) in a running t-test with 0.5 s analysis windows
(P<0.05, FDR-corrected, Supplementary Table S2). Note that before the button
press, a prechill deﬂection was observed. When contrasted with the chill, the
prechill was associated with increased activity in the hedonic hotspot nucleus
accumbens (Figure 3).
1232 | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2017, Vol. 12, No. 8
M¼24.7 years, s.d. ¼3.5) volunteered to participate in the fMRI
study (one participant had to be excluded due to severe motion
For the fMRI study, two experimenter-selected poems were
replaced in order to test the effects of stimuli that were pre-
sented for the very first time compared to the effects of the
other three experimenter-selected poems. The average length
of the experimenter-selected poems was M¼260 s (s.d. ¼156.7).
The familiarity ratings for the two new poems were on average
0.68 points (s.d. ¼1.31) on a 0–5 scale. Since no subset-specific
activations could be found in a pre-analysis, all stimuli were
collapsed into one category for the main fMRI analysis.
Scans were acquired using a 3-Tesla Siemens Magnetom
TrioTim MRI scanner (Siemens AG, Erlangen, Germany). Before
functional scanning, a field map was obtained (37 slices, 488 ms
repetition time, 4.92 ms short echo time and 7.38 ms long echo
time). For the functional data, a continuous sequence of T2*-
weighted echo-planar images of the BOLD signal was acquired
(whole brain coverage, 37 slices, interleaved acquisition, 3 mm
voxel size, 64 64 matrix size, 192 mm field of view, 30ms echo
time, 2 s repetition time). After the functional scanning, a high-
resolution (1 mm
) T1-weighted anatomical scan was obtained.
While undergoing the fMRI-scanning, participants listened to
the self-selected and the five experimenter-selected poems in a
randomized order via high-fidelity MRI-compatible head-
phones, interleaved with 30 s silent rest periods. As in the psy-
chophysiological session, participants were asked to push a
button for the entire duration of experiencing a chill, using their
right index finger. Additionally, participants were asked to indi-
cate neutral periods in which they experienced no emotional
arousal using a second button and their right middle finger.
This allowed us to contrast chills with neutral periods
(chills >neutral) within subjects and thereby to identify brain
areas that are specific for chills, since all other activity of basic
perceptual processing elicited during both chill and neutral
periods is cancelled out in the course of the comparison. Our
hypotheses regarding the chill-specific activation foci were
guided by the results of neuroimaging studies in the musical do-
main, which likewise relied on contrasting neutral and chill
periods (chills >neutral; Blood and Zatorre, 2001; Salimpoor
et al., 2011). These studies reported increased activity in reward-
related structures––including the NAcc in the ventral striatum,
right dorsal caudate nucleus, anterior insula (a-Ins), putamen,
mediodorsal thalamus, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and orbi-
tofrontal cortex (OFC)––and also in the cerebellum and the sup-
plementary motor area (SMA).
Data analysis was performed using SPM8 (Wellcome Trust
Centre for Neuroimaging, London, UK). The preprocessing
included slice time correction, realignment and unwarping
using the unwrapped field maps, co-registration to the anatom-
ical reference image, normalization into MNI space, and spatial
smoothing with a Gaussian kernel of 6 mm FWHM. To account
for low-frequency noise and signal drifts, a 128 Hz high-pass fil-
ter was applied. Statistical analysis was performed using a gen-
eral linear model (GLM) implemented in SMP8 with the chill
periods, neutral periods and prechill periods as primary regres-
sors of interest. Regressors of no interest indexed the remaining
stimulus periods, familiarity rating periods (7 s windows after
each stimulus) and six realignment parameters to account for
movement-related variance. The resting period of 3 min at the
beginning of the scanning session and the pauses of 30 s be-
tween the stimuli were left unmodeled as a baseline. Two con-
trasts of interest (statistical parametric maps computed across
the whole brain) were calculated first at the individual level and
afterwards as a t-test against zero at the group level:
chills >neutral and prechi lls >chills; we also computed the op-
posite contrasts, neutral >chills and chills >prechills. P-values
smaller than 0.05, corrected for family-wise errors (FWE), were
considered significant. Since prechill periods always precede
chills, we tested for potential multicollinearity before conduct-
ing the prechills >chills contrast; the average correlation of
these two factors was unproblematic (r¼0.10).
Chill-specific neural correlates
For the chills >neutrals contrast computed across the whole
brain, we found increased activity for chills bilaterally in the
mid insular lobes (m-Ins) and the adjacent Rolandic operculum
(RO), the putamen, mid cingulate cortex (MCC) extending to the
SMA, caudate nucleus (dorsal striatum), mediodorsal thalamus,
precuneus, supramarginal gyrus (SMG), cerebellum and fusi-
form gyrus (Figure 3A–E, Supplementary Table S3). The opposite
contrast neutral >chills showed no significant voxels above the
A comparison of these results with the neural correlates of
music-elicited chills (Blood and Zatorre, 2001; Salimpoor et al.,
2011) shows three differences. First, we did not find activations
in the NAcc, a-Ins, ACC or OFC. Second, in the reward-related
brain regions that overlap in responses to music and poetry, ac-
tivation peaks for poetry-evoked chills were shifted to the pos-
terior compared to those for music-evoked chills. Specifically,
for music-evoked chills, increased activity was found in the an-
terior cingulate, anterior insula and head of the caudate; in con-
trast, poetry-evoked chills recruited the mid cingulate, mid
insula and body and tail of the caudate (Figure 3). Third, poetry-
evoked chills recruited areas not reported for the musical do-
main, namely, the precuneus (Figure 3D) and SMG (Figure 3E).
Dynamics of reward
The activations we report broadly accord with the literature:
poetry-elicited chills do recruit subcortical areas of the basic re-
ward system, despite the heightened corrugator activity that we
discovered for the very same periods. Irrespective of the sub-
stantial activation overlap of music- and poetry-elicited chills,
we did not find any increased activity in the ventral striatum,
specifically, in the NAcc. However, as outlined above, the NAcc
could have been active shortly before the chill button was
pressed, and hence during reward expectation rather than re-
ward attainment. To test this, we performed the prechill >chill
contrast and indeed found bilateral activation in the ventral
striatum, including the NAcc, and in the left a-Ins during the
prechill period (Figure 3F–H, Supplementary Table S3).
Conversely, the chill >prechill contrast showed no significant
voxels above the threshold. Thus, the temporal trajectory of
poetry-elicited chills stands in marked contrast to that observed
for music-evoked chills, while largely converging with the out-
comes of the neuroimaging studies on pleasure in different
other modalities, such as taste, olfaction, visually perceived at-
tractiveness and monetary reward. Moreover, the activation
E. Wassiliwizky et al. |1233
pattern for the dorsal caudate nucleus also did not follow the
temporal trajectory of music-evoked chills, that is, there was no
increased activity during the prechills, but a strong recruitment
during the chills as compared to neutral periods (Figure 3A).
In order to gain insight into when exactly the peak of NAcc
activity occurred, we extracted the individual raw BOLD signal
from both significant NAcc clusters, removed long temporal
trends from the data, and computed a grand average for the
time window 10 to 6 s around the chill button press. The time
course plots of neural activity show a steep increase for both
NAcc clusters starting at 4 s and reaching the peak at 0 s, i.e.
the button press (Figure 4). After the button press, the NAcc ac-
tivity returns to baseline again. This result pattern suggests that
the NAcc activation is critical for paving the way for the peak
Prechills > Chills
Chills > Neutrals
Caud: Caudate nucleus, RO: Rolandic operculum, Put: Putamen, m-Ins: mid Insula, Thal: mediodorsal Thalamus,
SMA: supplementary motor area, Precun: Precuneus, MCC: mid cingulate cortex, SMG: supramarginal gyrus,
NAcc: Nucleus accumbens, a-Ins: anterior Insula
Fig. 3. Whole-brain statistical parametric maps for two contrasts: Chills >Neutrals. Chill-speciﬁc activations recruit the mesolimbic circuitry of primary reward pro-
cessing (caudate nucleus, putamen and mediodorsal thalamus). Prechills >Chills. A contrast of the prechill (reward anticipation) with the chill (reward attainment)
shows signiﬁcant bilateral activations during the anticipation in the ventral striatum, including the nucleus accumbens, thus emphasizing its role in preparing the aes-
thetic peak. (A, D, F) Sagittal views of the right hemisphere; (B, G) Axial views; (C, E, H) Coronal views (for readability, bilateral activations in B and C are labeled on only
one side). SPMs are plotted on the average high-resolution anatomical image, displayed in neurological convention (left hemisphere on the left); the coordinates refer
to MNI space; only clusters signiﬁcant at P<0.05, FWE-corrected, are shown.
1234 | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2017, Vol. 12, No. 8
emotional experiences that are accompanied by chills. The
underlying processes are likely to be driven by expectations
that are aroused by specific features of poetic language.
Chill-driving features of poetic language
Word position analysis. After verifying that poetic language can
have a very strong emotional effect on the bodies and brains of
listeners, we moved on to investigating stimulus features that
contribute to these remarkable outcomes. The emotional power
of poetry is widely believed to be promoted, or enhanced,
through its formal structural composition (Jacobs, 2015;
Obermeier et al., 2016; Menninghaus et al., 2017). This implies
that emotional peaks should not be randomly distributed across
a poem but should rather converge with particularly salient
points of the formal composition. Yet which are these preemi-
nent points? A long-standing hypothesis dating back to classical
rhetoric suggests that the closure positions are particularly sali-
ent and thus may represent peak points in the emotional trajec-
tory of texts (Lausberg, 1998). Adopted for the present context,
this cadence theory would therefore predict that chills should
preeminently occur at closing positions within a poem, e.g. at
the end of the individual stanzas, and, most notably, at the very
end of the entire poem.
To investigate this hypothesis, we calculated which words
participants were hearing when experiencing a chill. Then we
computed, for each word of the five experimenter-selected
poems, how many chills it triggered across all participants in
the first study. The results reveal a remarkably consistent pat-
tern, as illustrated in a heat map in Figure 5A: chills tend to
cluster (a) towards the end of a poem, (b) towards the end of a
stanza, and (c) towards the end of single lines (Supplementary
Figure S3A–D shows the heat maps for the other four poems).
Note also that, by its very definition, the heat map implies a
convergence of chill responses across participants, suggesting
that these effects were driven by particular features of the
stimulus rather than idiosyncratic preferences on the part of
To test these closure effects in a formal way, we conducted a
multilevel Poisson regression analysis over all five poems (with
word positions at Level 1 and the poems at Level 2). We con-
sidered three kinds of word position (within the entire poem,
within a stanza and within a line). To account for varying
lengths of poems/stanzas/lines, relative positions were calcu-
lated, i.e. the word number divided by the total number of words
of the respective poem/stanza/line. The results (Supplementary
Table S5A) reveal that the number of chills per word increased
for the later word positions within entire poems (b
P<0.001), within single stanzas (b
¼0.18, P<0.001), and
within single lines (b
¼0.16, P<0.001). To ensure that these
closure effects were not limited to the experimenter-selected
subset of poems, we conducted a second analysis for all 97 self-
selected poems (a multi-level logistic regression with relative
word positions at Level 1 and different poems as well as partici-
pants at Level 2). Corroborating our first analysis, we again found
that the number of chills increased for the later word positions
within the entire poem (b
¼2.26, P<0.001), within the stanza
¼0.81, P<0.001) and within single lines (b
P<0.001) (Figure 5B, Supplementary Table S5B).
Speech act analysis. The existing literature suggests that social
cognition and social emotions are particularly powerful in elicit-
ing chills (Panksepp, 1995; Konecni et al., 2007; Wassiliwizky
Fig. 4. Time course plots of neural activity in both NAcc clusters. The result pattern for both clusters shows a steep increase of NAcc activity 4 s before the button is
pushed (thereby converging roughly with the beginning of the prechill in Figure 2), reaching its peak at the time point when the chill sets in, and a return to baseline
during the time when the actual chill is experienced. Error bars indicate the standard error of the mean.
E. Wassiliwizky et al. |1235
et al., 2015; Schubert et al., 2016). Based on these assumptions,
we hypothesized that passages high in social cognition and
emotions should also be a predictor for the occurrence of chills
at particular points in poems. To operationalize this notion as a
testable hypothesis, we predicted that chills would more likely
occur during text passages that consist of speech acts address-
ing other present or absent persons (e.g. the beloved) or personi-
fied entities (e.g. mother nature). Such passages are markedly
different from prototypical narrative or descriptive passages in
that all of what they say has a pronounced focus on a real or
imagined interlocutor. Hence these passages emphasize a com-
municative function that is characteristic of direct personal
communication and social interaction. Therefore, we coded all
poems word-by-word for passages that include formal and lin-
guistic markers of social address (quotation marks denoting dir-
ect speech, second-person pronouns such as ‘you’ or ‘yours’) vs
narrative or descriptive passages lacking such features. Since
experimenter-selected poems were presented to all partici-
pants, whereas each participant listened to only his/her own
self-selected poems, we performed two independent analyses
for the two subsets. Both analyses revealed a strong link be-
tween chills and verbal acts of social address (b¼0.12, P<0.001
in a Poisson regression analysis for the experimenter-selected
¼1378.7, df ¼1, P<0.001 in a McNemar’s chi-square
test for the self-selected subset; Supplementary Table S6A, B).
In order to exclude the possibility that the influence of social
address could be explained entirely by the word positions (i.e.
social address passages could always occur at the end of lines/
stanzas/poems which would deprive these passages of any dis-
tinct predictive power regarding the occurrence of chills), we
ran two control analyses (one for each subset of poems) in
which both factors, word position and social address, were used
in one model as predictors for chills. The results show
(Supplementary Table S7) that the influence of social address is
Word | Poem
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
0 200 400 600 800
Word | Stanza
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
0 200 400 600 800
Word | Line
0.0 0.2 0.4 0.6 0.8 1.0
0 200 400 600 800
Fig. 5. Chill distributions reveal closure effects. (A) Heat map of chills for one experimenter-selected poem with four stanzas (the other four poems are given in SM).
Each row represents a line in the poem, each square represents a word. The coloring of the squares corresponds to the number of chills a word elicited across all par-
ticipants in the ﬁrst study. (B) Histograms of chill distributions across relative word positions for all 97 self-selected poems (‘Word jPoem’ means relative word position
within the poem, with 1 representing the last word of the poem). Note that for both subsets, chills tend to cluster at the end of entire poems, single stanzas, and indi-
vidual lines. In formal statistical analyses for both subsets, the number/occurrence of elicited chills per word could be robustly predicted by the relative word positions
(Supplementary Table S5A and B).
1236 | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2017, Vol. 12, No. 8
still in place as a main effect for both the experimenter-selected
(b¼0.05, P<0.05 in a multilevel Poisson regression analysis)
and the self-selected (b¼0.39, P<0.001 in a multilevel logistic
regression analysis) subsets when controlling for the influence
of word positions.
Poetic language can be found in virtually all cultures around the
world and throughout recorded history. However, to date, we
know very little about how poetic language effects the human
brain and body. The present series of experiments sheds light
on the highly pleasurable emotional effects of poetry. Providing
quantitative data from psychophysiology, neuroimaging and
behavior, we demonstrate that poetry is capable of inducing
peak emotional experiences, including subjectively reported
chills and objectively measured goosebumps. These very in-
tense responses have repeatedly been argued to involve high
personal relevance (Goldstein, 1980; Panksepp, 1995; Maruskin
et al., 2012). Given both their strong bodily components and their
intense subjective feeling components, chills and goosebumps
have been ascribed an internal signaling function for the organ-
ism, the message being that an event in the environment is per-
tinent to one’s most fundamental concerns (Maruskin et al.,
2012). The heightened activity during chills in the mid insula
corroborates the idea of a strongly felt bodily component, be-
cause this region plays a key role in interoceptive awareness
and neural representations of inner body states (Craig, 2002). As
a byproduct of this internal signaling function, chills and goose-
bumps enhance the memorability of the eliciting stimulus. This
fits well with the fact that participants easily remember the
exact passages of chill-eliciting poems (as shown in this study),
musical pieces (Panksepp, 1995; Blood and Zatorre, 2001;
Salimpoor et al., 2011) and movies (Sumpf et al., 2015;
Wassiliwizky et al., 2017).
The emotional power of poetic language became evident
both in the psychophysiological study that recruited partici-
pants who were inclined towards poetry and in the behavioral
follow-up study (reported in Supplementary Material) that drew
on participants who were naı¨ve regarding poetry. The latter
sample experienced fewer chills than the poetry enthusiasts
(76.7% of the sample vs 100%). Still, it is a highly remarkable
finding that nearly 77% of the naı¨ve participants experienced
chills in response to unfamiliar poems, all the more so if one
considers that chills are usually claimed to be bound to high fa-
miliarity with the stimulus and self-selection procedures (Blood
and Zatorre, 2001; Rickard, 2004; Grewe et al., 2007; Salimpoor
et al., 2009; Benedek and Kaernbach, 2011; Salimpoor et al., 2011;
Sumpf et al., 2015).
Furthermore, we found evidence that experiences of chills
and goosebumps respond in opposite ways to repeated expos-
ure (habituation vs sensitization). This might be the result of
evolutionary processes. Notably, chills and piloerection differ
mainly regarding their visibility to conspecifics. Human erection
of body hair is a relic of a communication device still used by
our furred primate and non-primate ancestors in situations of
threat and courtship to make the body appear larger and
thereby more impressive (French and Snowdon, 1981; Nishida,
1997). A weakening of this important social signal during the
course of repetitive displays might have been disadvantageous
for our ancestors. In contrast, chills are a private, subjective re-
sponse, invisible to others. Therefore, evolution would not have
disfavored their erosion with repetition in a similar way.
On top of demonstrating the emotional power of poetic lan-
guage, our skin conductance data also provide insight into the
temporal organization of peak emotional experiences. Here we
found an independent component, a prechill, rising and des-
cending shortly before the peak (the chill) occurs. We interpret
this phenomenon as an anticipation of the climax that is pre-
pared for or foreshadowed by immediately preceding cues.
Importantly, anticipation is built up in poetic language not only
by the semantic content, but also by phonological and structural
features such as rhyme and meter, so that even when an indi-
vidual listens to a poem for a first time, the formal composition
will provide cues, almost in a countdown-like manner, as to
when the line will end, when the stanza will end, and, in the
case of strongly formalized poems such as sonnets or haikus,
even when the entire poem will end. Since chills tend to cluster
at the end of textual units, the brain’s predictive coding system
might be fully aware of the time points at which the final peaks
are likely to materialize.
Another important finding of the physiological study was
the prominence of the corrugator activity, an indicator of nega-
tive affect, in moments of chills. In fact, the result pattern for
this facial muscle mimicked almost perfectly the pattern of the
electrodermal activity (Figure 1A and B), which is a classic indi-
cator of emotional arousal and which has provided the most
consistent results throughout several physiological studies on
chills in response to music and films (Blood and Zatorre, 2001;
Rickard, 2004; Grewe et al., 2007; Salimpoor et al., 2009; Benedek
and Kaernbach, 2011; Salimpoor et al., 2011; Mas-Herrero et al.,
2014; Sumpf et al., 2015). At the same time, the positive affect-
related zygomaticus (Figure 1D) showed much smaller and less
consistent effects (Supplementary Table S1B).
Strong corrugator activity in moments of art reception that
are perceived as highly rewarding is an intriguing finding. In the
fMRI study, we confirmed the involvement of the neural basic
reward circuitry for poetry-elicited chills, including the caudate
nucleus, putamen, mediodorsal thalamus, nucleus accumbens,
and anterior insula (with the latter two being restricted to the
periods of prechills). Recruitment of these regions by both the
biological reinforcers, which directly promote survival of the in-
dividual and the species, and by abstract stimuli has classically
been suggested to explain the strong human motivation to seek
out aesthetic experiences (Koelsch, 2014; Zatorre and
Salimpoor, 2013). The prominence of corrugator activity, indi-
cating negative affect, appears to be contradictory to these lines
of thinking. However, dating back as far as Aristotle’s paradox
of tragedy (i.e. why do people enjoy watching tragedies?), this
peculiar blend of aesthetic reward and negative emotions has
been debated for centuries in philosophical and artistic trad-
itions under the concept of ‘being moved’ (Kuehnast et al., 2014;
Menninghaus et al., 2015; Wassiliwizky et al., 2015), which
Friedrich Schiller succinctly defined as ‘the mixed sentiment of
suffering and the pleasure taken in this suffering’ (quoted in
Menninghaus et al., 2015). By demonstrating both increased
negative affect, as indicated by facial muscle activity, and re-
cruitment of reward-related brain structures, our study provides
the first physiological evidence supporting Schiller’s definition
of being moved.
One of the basic reasons of why we enjoy negative emotions
in contexts of art reception is that they are particularly powerful
in inducing intense involvement, sustaining focused attention
and granting high memorability. Importantly, all these effects
occur against a background of the personal safety of the per-
ceiver. That is, the perceiver is always aware of the distinction
between his or her own and the fictional reality as well as of the
E. Wassiliwizky et al. |1237
possibility to withdraw from the aesthetic stimulus at any time
(by leaving the theater, switching the radio channel, etc.) (for a
comprehensive review and an explanatory model, see
Menninghaus et al., 2017).
The neural correlates of poetry-elicited chills were found to
differ from that of music-elicited chills with regard to the exact
locations of heightened activity within the reward-related brain
regions: the activation peaks for poetry-evoked chills were
shifted to the posterior compared to those for music-evoked
chills (Blood and Zatorre, 2001; Salimpoor et al., 2011). This sug-
gests a different quality of chills elicited by poetry compared to
music-evoked chills. Given some fundamental differences be-
tween these domains, this finding is not surprising. After all,
only language-specific semantic content enables listeners to ac-
tivate precise scenario visualizations, empathic reactions to-
wards protagonists and complex social reasoning. Interestingly,
these notions are in line with the activations of two regions that
we observed in this study and that were not reported for music-
elicited chills: the precuneus and SMG. The activations of the
chill >neutral contrast in the anterior precuneus (Figure 3D),
which has been identified as playing a pivotal role in mental im-
agery of high self-relevance (Cavanna and Trimble, 2006), might
be driven by the scenario visualizations that are known to be
particularly vivid for highly emotional moments (Esrock and
a, 2014). The anterior precuneus has also been associ-
ated with the ability to switch one’s perspective from
self-reference to the content of other people’s minds, and with
judgments requiring empathy (Cavanna and Trimble, 2006).
Moreover, the prominence of a social dimension in poetry
(as discussed later) is corroborated by the activations in another
region not reported for music: the SMG (Figure 3E). Being part of
the temporo-parietal junction, the SMG is known to be crucially
engaged in social cognition and the theory of mind (Overwalle,
2009). Given the fact that poems can be restructured and modi-
fied without altering the semantic content (cf. Obermeier et al.,
2016), for instance, by reformulating direct into indirect speech,
these findings pose intriguing experimental possibilities for
future research that formulates a priori hypotheses about the
contribution of the precuneus and SMG to social cognition in
the context of poetic language.
Another important finding of our neuroscientific study was
the absence of NAcc activity in the chill >neutral contrast but an
increase of bilateral NAcc activity for the prechill >chill contrast,
which shows the very opposite of the NAcc activation distribution
for music-elicited chills (Salimpoor et al., 2011). This outcome ef-
fectively rules out NAcc involvement in experiencing the peak
pleasure itself and exclusively supports a role of NAcc in paving
time course data for both NAcc clusters which show an increase
of neural activity 4s before the chill sets in, a peak at the begin-
ning of the chill, and a decrease during the time when the chill is
experienced (Figure 4). Importantly, our skin conductance data
replicate the well-established fact that maximal emotional arousal
and pleasure are experienced during the actual chill, both in com-
parison to other parts of the stimulus (control condition in Figure
1) and locally, in comparison to the preceding prechill (Figure 2).
The NAcc activity is therefore specifically related to the build-up
process of the chill and not to the chill experience itself.
Notably, the specific function of the NAcc (or even its subdiv-
isions) in the process of reward has not yet been conclusively
identified. A large body of literature from human and animal re-
search suggests that the functioning of the NAcc is closely
related to making predictions and testing hypotheses about re-
warding events. In other words, if the pending stimulus is
promising in terms of its hedonic quality, the NAcc activity will
reflect this sweet anticipation and increase proportionally to
the expected value (Abler et al., 2006). On the other hand, if the
rewarding quality of a received stimulus is more valuable than
expected, the NAcc will also react to these pleasant surprises,
which are known in predictive coding theories as positive predic-
tion errors (Schultz, 1998; Berns et al., 2001; Abler et al., 2006;
Spicer et al., 2007). Finally, NAcc has also been shown to be sen-
sitive to the novel and the unexpected in general (Du¨ rschmid
et al., 2016). It is therefore likely that we cannot assign the role
of the NAcc either to the anticipation or to the attainment of re-
ward per se. Rather, it appears to serve a broader function of
learning statistical regularities of rewarding environmental
stimuli (and sometimes even aversive ones; Jensen et al., 2003),
generating expectations and comparing them to actual
Beyond elucidating the physiology and the neural underpin-
nings of intense emotional responses to poetry, our studies sought
to unveil some of the mechanisms of poetic language that drive
these responses. We did this by making use of the local informa-
tion about where, in a poem, chills occur. We theorized, based on
cadence theories (Lausberg, 1998), that in order to exert a maximal
emotional effect, chills would be more likely to occur and accumu-
late at closing positions within the poems. Using visualization
techniques and formal statistical approaches, we confirmed these
assumptions for both subsets of poems and for the subsequent
reading experiment. These closure effects are inextricably interwo-
ven with recurrent features of poetic language aimed at exploiting
our brain’s inclination towards rhythmicity, periodicity and the re-
sulting prediction of upcoming events. The places at which the
greatest number of predictions can be met or violated are final or
closing positions at different levels of a poem––a line, a stanza or
the entire poem––making these positions particularly salient for
the perceiver. Moreover, this line of thinking also implies a grad-
ation effect, that is, lines should trigger fewer predictions and
thereby have less salience and emotional power (as measured by
chills) than entire stanzas, and entire stanzas should have less of
these than an entire poem. Exactly this is reflected by the beta co-
efficients in our analyses and also in the follow-up reading study
(Supplementary Table S5). The increased activity of the NAcc (and
the concurrent physiological arousal) at the positions shortly be-
fore a closure (as compared to the closure itself) can therefore be
interpreted as evidence for the pleasant anticipation of whether
the predictions will be met or violated at the final positions.
Moreover, evocation of social situations and the associated
empathic reactions of the perceiver represent another chill-
driving factor that is exploited by poetic language. Poetry has a
particularly pronounced focus on highly self-relevant and in-
timate forms of emotional and social attachment. It therefore
typically dwells on personal dilemmas, romantic love and deep
friendship. Importantly, the feelings of close personal attach-
ment are usually unfulfilled in poems in one form or another,
as in cases of unrequited love, sacrifice of love due to unfortu-
nate circumstances, or a friendship that is put to a hard test. All
of this adds gravity and seriousness to these highly self-
relevant and intrinsically pleasant issues, thereby triggering
concomitant feelings and expressions of negative affect (as evi-
denced by our data). This blend ultimately leads to states of
being emotionally moved.
Given that chills have now been reported for three different do-
mains (music, poetry and films), our findings open up great
1238 | Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2017, Vol. 12, No. 8
opportunities for future studies designed to compare the neural
correlates of emotional chills across domains but within the
same subjects. Most interestingly, these direct comparisons
would allow further investigations into the differences in the
neural orchestration of music-elicited and poetry-elicited chills.
Moreover, future studies could make progress in methodological
rigor not only by including chills-inducing stimuli from different
domains and testing a priori hypotheses derived from previous
investigations, but also by testing more subjects, including sub-
jects with different levels of familiarity and expertise.
Our studies converge in showing that poetry is a powerful emo-
tional stimulus capable of engaging brain areas of primary re-
ward. The fact that poetry-elicited chills differ from those
evoked by music in terms of neural correlates points to the
unique qualities of poetic language that could not be replaced
by music and singing during the evolution of human forms of
emotional expression. Importantly, whereas music has fre-
quently been acknowledged to be a pancultural phenomenon
that has served important social functions from prehistory on-
wards (Koelsch, 2014; Zatorre and Salimpoor, 2013), it is typic-
ally unappreciated that poetry likewise represents an ancient,
cross-cultural, and emotionally powerful variety within the
human communicative and expressive repertoire. Moreover, al-
though poetic language plays a crucial role in song lyrics, and
while songs and instrumental music are broadly consumed and
enjoyed in our everyday lives, poems as such receive far less at-
tention (Bradshaw et al., 2004; Gleed, 2013). We believe that this
discrepancy is due to a lack of experiences of pleasure in re-
sponse to poetry. This might be caused by insufficient exposure
during childhood and adolescence, too analytical an approach
to poems in literature classes at school, and overall, widespread
ignorance regarding the potential of poetry to provide aesthetic
pleasure and foster profound emotional engagement. The re-
sults of the studies presented here should therefore not only
put poetry on the agenda of scientific attention but also help to
promote knowledge about the powerful effects of poetry in edu-
cation and public awareness.
E.W. and W.M. conceived the idea; E.W. designed and performed
all studies (with S.K. helping to design the fMRI study); E.W. and
S.K. analyzed the fMRI data; E.W., V.W. and T.J. performed all
other statistical analyses; E.W. and W.M. wrote the paper; S.K.,
T.J. and V.W. revised the paper; and all authors discussed the re-
sults and implications of the study.
Supplementary data are available at SCAN online.
We thank the staff of the electronic workshops at the Freie
at Berlin and Helmut Schmidt University for assist-
ance in constructing the goosecam. We are also grateful to
Isabel Bohrn and Arthur Jacobs for helpful advice on design-
ing the fMRI study, R. Muralikrishnan for assistance with
data analysis, Vanessa Kegel for help with coding the pas-
sages of social address, Felix Bernoulli for assistance with
the graphics, and David Poeppel, Ed Vessel, and Mathias
Scharinger for valuable comments on the manuscript. All
authors declare that no competing interests exist.
Funding for this paper was provided by the Cluster
of Excellence ‘Languages of Emotion’ (Deutsche
Forschungsgemeinschaft/German Research Foundation),
the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, and the
Konrad Adenauer Foundation (to E.W.).
Conﬂict of interest. None declared.
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