I’ve been to hundreds of poetry readings over the past 15 years. Some have been amazing, some boring, others rabble-rousing. So, I was interested to hear from fellow poet Cathy Wagner that there was an actual clinical study conducted in Germany in 2002 that tested the effects of “guided rhythmic speech” on heart rate variation. And the results of the study indicate that reciting and hearing poetry read out-loud modulates the blood flowing in and out of your heart.

According to Heartmath (a team of cardiologists and doctors who research emotional physiology and stress-management) the heart is more than just an essential organ. It’s an “information processing system that communicates and sends commands to the brain and the rest of the body.” In other words, the heart  activates neurological activity, releases hormones, and produces “an electromagnetic field that permeates every cell in our body and extends beyond the skin out into the atmosphere up to 3 or 4 feet.” Woah.

Henrik Bettermann, the lead researcher of this study, writes that heartbeat & respiration are “vital and integrative to rhythms of life”; they are “border posts” between consciously controllable and non-controllable physiological rhythms.

Bettermann’s study suggests that rhythmic patterns in speech affect physiological time signatures in your body –which I surmise means that a poetry reading can activate much more than thoughts and emotions.

Granted, Bettermann’s study was on traditional verse written in hexameter, and the participants in the study were reading this verse out loud. But I’d be willing to guess that it’s not the meter that matters, but rather the tone and groove of the language. In other words, it’s the “guided speech” that’s important — so wouldn’t rhythmic prose have a similar effect?

Regardless, next time you’re at a poetry or prose reading, try this: relax by noticing your breath. As you listen to the writer, don’t feel any pressure to grasp for meaning. Instead, listen to the rhythm of the writer’s language and pay attention to how the writer is guiding you into the tones and grooves of the poem/prose piece. (The meaning will find its way to you, don’t worry.) And as you listen to that language, imagine that you are breathing into your heart. As you do this, imagine the language circulating in your blood, and permeating every cell in your body.

This might be one way to release the “psycho physiological” effects that put the mind/body integration into activation mode.

Or try this: the next time you’re bored listening to someone read or speak, close your eyes and imagine the cardiovascular regulation that your heart rate modulates simultaneously with your breathing. You might get more out of it than you think!

*The study, called “Effects of speech therapy with poetry on heart rate rhythmicity and cardiorespiratory coordination” is technical. I’d be interested in hearing whether or not my more general application of this study correlates to the statistical results of the study itself.

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