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Poetry as Right-Hemispheric Language

Julie Kane
Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2004, 11 (5-6): 21-59.


Though the brain's left hemisphere is commonly believed to be the "seat of language," the right hemisphere processes a number of subtle linguistic functions. This paper will argue that the degree of right-hemispheric involvement in language is what differentiates "poetic" or "literary" from "referential" or "technical" speech. It will suggest that the absence of left- hemispheric dominance for language in the brains of preliterate and illiterate persons may explain why those populations exhibit so-called "magical" thinking rich in right-hemispheric features. Finally, it will link studies demonstrating high rates of mania and hypomania among poets (but not other types of writers or creative artists) to other studies observing a temporary shift from left- to right-hemispheric dominance for language during the manic phase, suggesting that overactivation of these brain regions may underlie the compulsion to write poetry.


... Several twentieth-century thinkers have intuited a relationship between the shift from orality to print literacy within a given culture, and a fundamental shift in the quality of consciousness of the individuals within that culture. That of course is the central thesis of McLuhan (1962) in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, although he expounds upon it in prose that is maddeningly riddling and vatic: "Print is the extreme phase of alphabet culture that detribalizes or decollectivizesman in the first instance... Print is the technology of individualism... As for the technique of doubt in Montaigne and Descartes, it is inseparable, technologically, as we shall see from the criterion of repeatability in science." Jaynes (1976) observed the absence of individual 'free will' and the puzzling presence of external, godly voices uttering mandatory commands to humans in ancient literary works such as the Iliad or the oldest books of the Old Testament. He hypothesized that signals arising in the temporal lobe of the brain's right hemisphere could have travelled to the auditory area of the left via the small anterior commissures connecting the two lobes - i.e., bypassing the need for interhemispheric transfer via the corpus callosum. Significantly, from our perspective, Jaynes further argued that the hallucinated voices spoke in poetic verse, and that they disappeared with the rise of writing in the second millennium BC. De Kerckhove (1981; 1988a,b) put forth a theory of Greek drama as an outgrowth of phonetic alphabetic literacy which, in turn, trained audiences in the habits required for literacy: "While they were attending stage productions illiterates might be deemed to develop their attention span, their concentration, their critical faculties and their capacity for abstraction, their manipulation of language, and even their visual skills from peripheral to centralized and directional vision. They might be encouraged for the first time to define and fragment experience in sequences and reorganize its patterns in a unified visual space." Ong (1982) and Havelock (1986) have also written extensively about the restructuring of traditional oral consciousness by print literacy. It is hoped that this essay might suggest the underlying reasons for the observable differences between oral and print consciousness. ...