Poems And Pupils

Jessica Love flags a new paper that indicates “our responses to poems that defy our formal expectations may also have an emotional component.” Researchers presented study participants with limericks that, in their final lines, violated a formal property of the poem, such as rhyme scheme, expected rhythm, proper syntax, or overall poem coherence:

[R]esearchers measured participants’ pupils as they listened to the poems. Here, they found that the rhyme violations—and only the rhyme violations—caused the pupils to dilate.

Now, as behavioral measures go, pupil dilation is pretty new, and nobody can argue with any confidence how it should be interpreted. But an earlier study pegged it to mental effort: the faster the mind spins, the more the pupils react. So first the researchers reasoned that rhyme violations in limericks simply elicit more surprise or confusion (and thus require more mental work to overcome that surprise or confusion) than other sorts of violations. But no, a closer look at responses to individual poems revealed that even those rhyme violations that received relatively “ok” ratings still caused pronounced dilation, while other types of “highly anomalous” violations did not. This led researchers to their next preferred interpretation: above and beyond evoking surprise, rhyme violations in limericks pack a singularly emotional wallop.