This Is Your Brain On Poetry #WorldPoetryDay

Poetry has been captivating readers for centuries, drawing them in with its beautiful language and vivid imagery. But what happens in our brains when we read a poem?

Recent research in the field of neuroscience has shed light on the unique ways in which the brain processes poetic language and the emotional responses it can evoke. Neuroscientists have been exploring how the human brain reacts to poetry using advanced tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). What they’ve discovered is that our brains seem to be wired to recognize the rhymes and rhythms that poets use and differentiate them from ordinary speech or prose. Moreover, contemplating poetic imagery and the multiple layers of meanings in poems activates specific areas of the brain that help us interpret our everyday reality. This is because poetry often contains metaphors, imagery, and other literary devices that can evoke powerful emotional responses in the reader. For example, a poem that describes a sunset in vivid detail can elicit feelings of awe, beauty, and tranquility.

In addition to activating emotional centers in the brain, reading poetry also engages the regions involved in processing language. While the emotional impact of poetry can be powerful and immediate, the cognitive processing involved in understanding and appreciating poetic language is also important.

Studies have shown that reading poetry activates a network of brain regions involved in processing language, including areas responsible for phonological and syntactic processing, semantic memory, and working memory. Poetic language often employs figurative language, metaphor, and other rhetorical devices, which require the brain to engage in a more abstract and nuanced mode of thinking than everyday language.

Furthermore, research has suggested that the cognitive processing involved in reading poetry can lead to a greater appreciation and understanding of the emotional content of the poem. This is because the effort required to process the poem’s language can lead to a deeper engagement with the meaning and emotional resonance of the words.

Interestingly, the brain regions involved in processing poetry also overlap with those involved in autobiographical memory which includes regions in the prefrontal cortex, medial temporal lobe, and posterior cingulate cortex. This suggests that reading poetry can indeed be a deeply personal experience, as it can evoke memories and emotions that are specific to the individual reader.

When we read a poem, we may relate to the experiences or emotions expressed by the poet, and this can trigger memories or emotions from our own lives. Additionally, the use of vivid and sensory language in poetry can help to create a rich and immersive mental image, which can further enhance the personal and emotional impact of the poem. Furthermore, research has suggested that the personal relevance of a poem can influence how the brain processes language. For example, a study found that when participants read poems that were personally meaningful to them, there was increased activity in brain regions associated with self-referential processing, such as the medial prefrontal cortex.

By understanding the neuroscience of poetry, we can gain insights into why poetry has such a powerful impact on us, and how it can be used to improve our mental and emotional health. This World Poetry Day, let us celebrate not only the beauty of poetry but also the fascinating science behind it.

The Neurobiology of Leadership

Brains, leadership and belief

In the summer of 1963, a quarter of a million people showed up at the mall in Washington D.C. to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.

Dr. King was not the only man in America who was a great orator.

Nor was he the only man who suffered in a pre-civil rights America.

But he had a gift.

He did not tell people what needed to change in America.

He told people what he believed; and the people who believed what he believed took his cause, made it their own, and created structures to get the word out to others such that 250,000 people showed up on the right day and at the right time to hear him speak.

Many traveled long distances to Washington for what they themselves believed about America. It was not about black versus white: 25% of the audience was white. 

Higher authority

Dr King believed that there were two types of laws in the world: those that are made by a higher authority and those that are made by men; and not until all the laws that are made by men are consistent with the laws that are made by the higher authority will we live in a just world. It just so happens that the civil-rights movement was the perfect vehicle to help him bring his cause to life. 

There are leaders, and there are those who lead

Dr King gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech. We listen to politicians now with their comprehensive 12-point plans. That is not leadership and it is not inspiring anybody.

Today, there are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead inspire us. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves.

Those who start with a belief have the ability to inspire those around them and to find others who inspire them.    

Is the brain wired for beliefs? 

Until recently, the task of applying what we know about the brain to the bigger question of personal human experience has been avoided by scientists.

However, the emergence of the new discipline of neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – is helping us to bridge this gap by providing new ways to answer such old questions as why beliefs are so important to us.

One answer is that the brain is wired to make predictions about what is going to happen next based on what has happened in the past, and in some ways, predictions are like beliefs. For instance, scientists write about scientific predictions as if they are beliefs or explanations that are pre-emptively offered to anticipate and explain the world as we see it. 

Uncertainty can make you sick

Knowing that the brain is wired for prediction explains why we find uncertainty so stressful and if it persists, it can actually make us sick. In this way, religious beliefs can reduce the uncertainty of our own experiences by explaining the unexplainable. This also accounts for why those things we now explain through science were once thought of as magic or caused by a deity. 

Meaning is not innate and must be manufactured

The explanation that the brain is wired for prediction is a general explanation to understanding how we make meaning. The brain of a newborn is not just a miniature version of an adult brain. Its wiring is incomplete. What infants are doing is waiting for a set of wiring instructions from the world. In this way, the people who raised you influenced the wiring of your brain including what to believe and what is meaningful to you. 

We have one self-creating freedom 

As we mature into adulthood, we have one self-creating freedom in that we can accept or reject these instructions. In this way, a person is what he makes himself to be, and those who lead and inspire us help facilitate this process.

We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to. We have to value this self-creating freedom that is enjoyed in our time.

Brain, Belief and the Nature of Frankenstein

To tie in with today’s Halloween theme, I am sharing a slide deck from a presentation I gave some years ago. In the presentation, I explored how our brains provide different insights, values, and priorities when it comes to shaping our beliefs and how we perceive our world.

How Things You Do Change Your Brain

Ever wonder how ballet dancers can spin and spin and spin, but never seem to get dizzy? Neuroplasticity, that’s how. This short video explains how it works, and how you can use your brain in the same way.

How To “Vaccinate” Yourself Against Depression #WorldMentalHealthDay

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Today is World Mental Health Day, which is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health.

Depression is very common – it is estimated that at least one in five people in Ireland will develop depression during their lifetime. Depression is not to be confused with the normal ups and downs of everyday life. Everyone can feel a bit ‘down’ from time to time as a reaction to an upsetting event, but will start to feel better after a few days or weeks. It is a natural, short-lived response to stressful times in life.

However, some people are unable to escape this low mood, and find it difficult to carry on with life as usual. They may experience low/sad, irritable or indifferent mood, loss of interest and enjoyment in daily life and a general lack of energy. This may be often accompanied by some or all of the following physical symptoms, fatigue and reduced activity, disturbed sleep or excessive sleep, changes in appetite and weight, loss of sex drive, unexplained aches and pains e.g. headache, backache and changes to the menstrual cycle.

Depression affects different people in different ways – not everyone has the same symptoms. Other symptoms include poor concentration or reduced attention, difficulty in making decisions, tearfulness, restlessness, agitation or anxiety, low self-confidence and self-esteem, feelings of guilt, inability to cope with life as before, avoiding other people, bleak view of the future, morbid thoughts, ideas of self-harm.

Treatment is available and recovery is possible.

Starting in the 1960’s neuroscientists regarded depression as a kind of ‘anaemia’ in the brain – a lack of three important neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in key emotional regions in the brain. Antidepressant drugs were then developed to bring the levels of these neurotransmitters particularly serotonin back to normal. Prozac is a good example of this type of drug and it has proved to be a safe and effective life saver for many the depressed patient.

However, recently neuroscientists have had a radical change of mind with respect to the nature of depression. This change of view is partially due to evidence from brain imaging studies in depressed patients showing dramatic changes in nerve activity in the frontal lobe of the brain.

The importance of the frontal lobe in depression

Nervous activity in the frontal lobes forms our attitudes, plans and strategies and is at least in part under our own control.    This view advocates that depression is in fact a disorder of thinking – a sort of obsessional pessimism from which the depressed patient can see no way out and this is what causes the low neurotransmitter levels.

Wisconsin Study

The WISCONSIN STUDY adds another twist by showing that the brains of depressed individuals actually exhibit the same initial levels of activity in positive/pleasure-generating brain regions. Instead they found differences in the ability to sustain those positive emotions.

Findings from my own research group and others show that three important neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline play a key role in sustaining attention and motivation the brain. Thus low neurotransmitter levels may impair the ability to ‘embed’ these new thoughts and emotions leaving the depressed patient feeling like they are back at square one. This study lends support to notion that depression is best treated by psychological/behavioral treatments or in combination of drugs, not drugs alone.

Thus while antidepressants can help treat the chemical anaemia – good mental heath in particular careful monitoring of your everyday thoughts and attitudes will ensure that negative thoughts are nipped in the bud is also vital in the treatment and even the prevention of depression.

Anatomy Of A Migraine Attack #BrainAwarenessWeek


Scientists have learned a lot in recent years about what happens in the brain to explain the throbbing pain, nausea, heightened sensitivity to light or sound felt during a migraine headache and the mysterious ‘aura’ that both doctors and scientists use to describe the telltale period, starting up to an hour before a migraine attack, when a person sees dots, wavy lines, flashing lights, blind spots or difficulty with speech, sensation, or movement.

What triggers a migraine attack? 

Although researchers don’t understand exactly what triggers migraine attacks, they do know that certain foods, lack of sleep, changes in weather, and even stress can trigger a migraine attack in 1 in 200 people.

The anatomy of a migraine attack

Neuroscientists now see migraine as firstly a disturbance in nerve function rather than a disorder of the brain’s blood vessels. It is believed that in most patients, a wave of electrical activity passing through a major nerve that collects and transmits signals to the face – the trigeminal nerve – and stimulates the release of chemicals such as CGRP and other substances that cause inflammation, makes the nerves more sensitive to pain, and causes blood vessels near the brain to expand (dilate). This nerve irritation often progresses as an electrical wave from the skin to nerves located centrally in the brain.

The key to treatment is to act quickly to stop the irritation spreading.  In fact, anti-migraine drugs can offer relief only in the earlier stages of the attack, but not later, when the pain neurons in the brain have become sensitized. For this reason, patients are advised to take medication within 20 minutes of an attack and while migraine pain is still mild.

The wave that turns into a flood

A migraine attack is triggered when a wave of electrical activity that starts in the trigeminal nerve on the side of the face enters the brain and ripples across the surface of the brain. In fact, researchers have been able to demonstrate a possible link between this wave and the experience of ‘aura’ particularly as it spreads across the visual part of the brain. Several drugs used to prevent migraine attacks work by preventing this wave from spreading.



Migraine is a complex neurological condition that is classified by the World Health Organisation as the 7th most disabling disease worldwide, the 4th for women.

Migraine is the most common neurological condition in the world, affecting about 12 – 15% of people. It is three times more common in women than it is in men and is usually inherited. It is a very individual condition. Some people experience only one or two attacks per year while others suffer on a weekly basis. An attack can last from 4 to 72 hours.

For more information and support visit

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween! In keeping with the Halloween theme, here is a slide-deck from my presentation entitled: Brain, belief and the nature of Frankenstein, which I gave last year at Frankenweek@UL.

The week-long event marked the international celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Halloween 2018. The workshop gave me the opportunity to explore how our brain provides differing insights, values and priorities in shaping beliefs, and in how we understand ourselves in the world.

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As The World Wide Web Turns 30, How Is The Internet Changing Your Brain? #BrainAwarenessWeek

This day 30 years ago signaled the birth of the World Wide Web, ushering in the information age and revolutionizing life as we know it.


Former physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World-Wide Web as an essential tool for High Energy Physics (HEP) at CERN from 1989 to 1994. Together with a small team he conceived HTML, http, URLs, and put up the first server and the first wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) browser and html editor. (Photo: CERN)

Vague but exciting.”

This was how Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s boss responded when the 33-year-old British physicist submitted his proposal for a decentralized system of information management on March 12, 1989.

Today there are over 4.4 billion internet users worldwide, growing at a rate of more than 11 new users per second. Internet user growth has accelerated in the past year, with more than 366 million new users coming online since January 2018.

This is your brain on the internet

The Internet takes advantage of the two most important features within the human brain – that social behaviour elicits pleasure and that vision triggers memories and emotions deep within our unconscious minds.

The first feature is that social activity triggers a nerve pathway deep in our subconscious – the mesolimbic dopamine pathway – also called the reward pathway, releasing a chemical called dopamine which bathes the brain’s pleasure centres – similar to other activities with intrinsic value such as food, sex and getting money.

Getting high on social activity

People like talking about themselves on social media because it has intrinsic value by generating a warm emotion of being part of something important. In other words, we like sharing because it is enjoyable for its own sake as a social activity. In this way sharing is deeply sensory – we humans literally ‘get high’ on social activity.


The image to the left is a view of the human brain cut down the middle. The reward pathway – shown in red – is activated by a rewarding stimulus.

The major structures in the reward pathway are highlighted: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex.

The VTA sends information along its connections to both the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The neurons of the VTA contain the neurotransmitter dopamine which is released in the nucleus accumbens and in the prefrontal cortex. The pathway shown here is not the only pathway activated by rewards, other structures are involved too, but only this part of the pathway is shown for simplicity

The power of online images

The second feature worth noting is that over 70% of the human brain is dedicated to vision which means that our brains think in terms of visual images.

In fact, the visual system is the first to mature in the human brain so that by the age of five, children are able to compete on visual games with their grandparents …and win!

This explains why social networks like Instagram that use images are so popular.

The internet and the brain share common features

Ed Bullmore, professor of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, has noted how the human brain and the internet have quite a lot in common.

“They are both highly non-random networks with a “small world” architecture, meaning that there is both dense clustering of connections between neighbouring nodes and enough long-range short cuts to facilitate communication between distant nodes, ” he points out.

Both the internet and the brain have a wiring diagram dominated by a relatively few, very highly connected nodes or hubs; and both can be subdivided into a number of functionally specialised families or modules of nodes. – Ed Bullmore

Berner Lee’s thoughts on the world wide web today

While the invention of the world wide web has changed our world in many positive ways, there is a dark side that has recently emerged.

In an open letter to mark the anniversary, Berner Lee questioned what it has become on the 30th anniversary of its creation, noting democracy and privacy were now under serious threat.

But he added it wasn’t too late to straighten the ship’s course.

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web,” he wrote. “It’s our journey from digital adolescence to a more mature, responsible and inclusive future.”

We could equally apply these words to the neurobiology of internet usage. Whether the internet is changing our minds for the better or not is a debate that coalesced around Nicholas Carr’s book published a decade ago The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains).  Carr argues that the internet is making us “more stupid” as we are losing the ability to concentrate and remember.

Perhaps the question is less about how the internet is changing our brains, but more accurately how is it changing our thinking.

But that’s a debate for another day.

Since we’re not going to dismantle the world wide web any time soon, the most important question is: how should we respond?