Oith their daughter in hospital suffering from kidney failure, Jonathan Bate and his wife Paula Byrne waited. “In that darkest moment, as she struggled to survive, it was very hard to think of anything but the prospect of losing her,” Bate says today. Bate and Byrne, both renowned literary scholars and biographers, found no relief. “We waited in the hospital and there was nothing to read but a faded celebrity magazine,” Bate recalled. Following a kidney transplant, when their daughter was doing well, Bate and Byrne had an idea. “How about creating an anthology of poems to help people through dark times? said Bat. “Perhaps a careful reading of a poem can help restore balance to the nervous system.”
In 2016, Bate, now a founding professor of environmental humanities at Arizona State University, published an anthology with Byrne titled Stressed, Unstressed: Classic Poems to Soothe the Mind. Scholars knew that people in the English-speaking world had long turned to poetry to lift their spirits. Philosopher JS Mill found solace in his depression by reading William Wordsworth. Mill called Wordsworth’s poetry “medicine for my state of mind”. The poems expressed “states of feeling… under the excitement of beauty” which gave Mill “a source of inner joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared by all human beings”.
Those of us who love literature may have felt its healing power. But what does science say? Can reading poetry relieve the physiological symptoms of stress and anxiety? That’s what videographer Steven Allardi and I set out to investigate in the videos below. They feature interviews with Bate and Inna Khazan, a biofeedback researcher and clinician at Harvard Medical School.
Biofeedback uses sensitive medical instruments to test how techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness affect physiological indicators of stress such as blood pressure. Two of the most powerful indicators are impossible to measure without high-tech instruments: heart rate variability and cardio-respiratory synchronization. In any given minute, your heart rate is not perfectly stable. In fact, it varies from beat to beat, going from (say) 60 beats per minute to 80 beats per minute and then back down, all within seconds. It turns out that high resting-state heart rate variability (HRV) is directly correlated with mental health,1 welfare,2 and even long-term resilience to stressors and trauma.3
Meanwhile, when you’re relaxed and enjoying high HRV, another weird thing happens in your body: your heartbeats synchronize with your breathing. It happens unconsciously and out of your control. But this, too, correlates with mental well-being. And this is where poetry comes in.
A series of studies have shown that reading rhythmic poetry can increase both your resting HRV4 and cardio-respiratory synchronization.5 This turns out to be especially true for poetry in long six-beat lines, such as ancient Greek poetry which Plato described as sending its reciters into a trance or “rhapsodic” state. High HRV and cardio-respiratory synchronization can help induce that “state of flow” in which mental focus becomes effortless and enjoyable. Perhaps those ancient Greek “rhapsodes” had found the trick to making the state flow into poetry.
However, not all of us can read ancient Greek poetry. So instead, you might find a memorable, calmingly-paced poem to become your touchstone. One such poem for me is “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost, included in Stressed Unstressed. Frost claims to have written the poem in a state of flux; could it induce a similar response in a reader?
To test these effects, Khazan hooked me up to a biofeedback machine that measures HRV and cardio-respiratory synchronization, among other indicators correlated to emotional regulation and resilience. I sat in silence for two minutes and thought about the painful and anxiety-provoking events in my life. My HRV collapsed and my breath was all over the place. Then I silently read “Stopping by Woods”. My indicators have rallied and even jumped above my base levels. The experience offered new insight into Frost’s remark from nearly a century ago that poetry “begins in joy and ends in wisdom”.
Main image: OneLineStock.com / Shutterstock
1. van der Zwan, JE, Huizink, AC, Lehrer, PM, Koot, HM and de Vente, W. The effect of heart rate variability biofeedback training on the mental health of pregnant and non-pregnant women. pregnant: a randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 161061 (2019).
2. Harvard Health Publishing Staff. Heart rate variability: how it could indicate well-being. Harvard Health Blog (2021).
3. Dennis, PA, et al. Post-traumatic stress, heart rate variability and the mediating role of behavioral health risks. Psychosomatic medicine 76629-637 (2014).
4. von Bonin, D., Frühwirth, M., Heuser, P., and Moser, M. Effects of speech therapy with poetry on heart rate variability and well-being. Research in complementary and classical natural medicine 8144-160 (2001).
5. Cysarz, D., et al. Heartbeat and breath oscillations synchronize during poetry recitation. American Journal of Physiology: Cardiac and Circulatory Physiology 287H597-587 (2004).