Thunderous silence, undead, sweet bitterness, white night or beautiful monster are examples of oxymoron, a combination of two words of opposite meaning that when joined create a new meaning. Literature and poetry are full of phrases and compositions of images that make different areas of our brain work.

How literature works on our brain

A Spanish study published in the journal NeuroImage [¹] reveals that these literary figures generate intense activity in the left frontal area of ​​the brain.

According to the authors of the study, from the Basque Center on Cognition , Brain and Language (BCBL) in San Sebastián, politicians in their speeches, generals in their harangues and lovers in their poems have always used certain rhetorical figures to convince, instill courage or seduce. What had not been achieved until now was to empirically measure the ability of a literary figure to generate brain activity in people.

“Our research demonstrates the rhetorical success of literary figures, and the reason for their effectiveness is that they attract the attention of the listener” more than other expressions, explains Nicola Molinaro, lead author of the study.

Specifically, ” the front part of the brain is activated and more resources than usual are used to process this expression at the brain level “. The researcher points out that the result of the experiments is related to the activity that requires processing the abstraction of rhetorical figures such as the oxymoron, which try to communicate things that do not exist.

For the experiments [²], Molinaro and his colleagues created several lists of incorrect phrases, neutrals, oxymorons and pleonasms (unnecessary words that add expressiveness), using the same noun as the subject: the word ‘monster’.

Specifically, researchers have used ‘geographic monster’ as an incorrect expression, ‘lonely monster’ as a neutral expression, ‘beautiful monster’ as an oxymoron, and ‘horrible monster’ as a pleonasm. These lists were then shown to people between the ages of 18 and 25, and their brain activity was measured when processed by EEG.

The results show that the less natural the expression is, the more resources it requires to be processed in the left front part of the brain. The neutral phrase ‘ lonely monster ‘ is the one that needs the least brain resources to process. As for the incorrect expression ‘ geographic monster ‘, 400 milliseconds after perceiving it, the brain reacts when it detects that there is an error.

However, in the case of oxymorons, such as ‘ beautiful monster ‘, 500 milliseconds after the expression was perceived, intense brain activity was measured in the front left part of the brain, an area closely related to language that humans have very much. developed compared to other species.

Molinaro has already begun to repeat this experiment with magnetic resonance imaging [³], to obtain images of brain activity when processing figures of speech. The next objective is to study the connections between two areas very involved in the processing of meaning: the hippocampus and the left frontal area.

By Dr. Eric Jackson

Dr. Eric Jackson provides primary Internal Medicine care for men and women and treats patients with bone and mineral diseases, diabetes, heart conditions, and other chronic illnesses.He is a Washington University Bone Health Program physician and is a certified Bone Densitometrist. Dr. Avery is consistently recognized in "The Best Doctors in America" list.

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