Haiku and the Brain is an interdisciplinary project, bringing together poets and neuro-/cognitive scientists, aiming to investigate the construction of meaning in the process of reading normative, 3-line English-language haiku (ELH) and monoku. Using behavioral, cognitive, and neurocognitive methods (including rating scales, eye-movement recording, pupillometry, electroencephalography [EEG], and functional magnetic-resonance imaging [fMRI]), we aim to explore the value of haiku as paradigmatic material in the study of the construction of poetic/literary meaning and, hopefully, meaning in general. Future extensions of this work may also explore the potential of haiku reading for maintaining, or even enhancing, cognitive function.
Work to Date and Outlook
Our initiating question was to explore the reading of English-language haiku (ELH), which we argued is a potentially paradigmatic material for studying the reception of poetic texts at large.
Working with the eye-mind hypothesis (i.e., the assumption that there is a strong link between eye movements and ongoing cognitive processing), we decided to start our investigation using behavioral methods – in particular, eye-movement tracking (as well as post-reading ratings) – in order to establish some basic effects as a step towards developing a working model for the results.
What we observed was that the reading of haiku is highly complex, with the eyes scanning the poems in a relatively linear manner initially (first-pass reading), followed by backtracking to earlier lines and then again going forward to later lines (second- and third-pass reading etc.) – producing what looks like idiosyncratic (‘crisscrossing’) scan paths. Despite these complex eye-movement patterns, a consistency emerges when aggregating the scan paths across many poems and readers – a consistency we refer to as the “cut effect”: readers tend to spend more (fixation) time on, and return more often (with their eyes) to, the fragment line of the poem. This effect is modified by the type of poem that is being read – the cut effect is more pronounced for juxtaposition than for context-action haiku – as well as by the position of the cut, and whether or not the cut is marked by a cut marker (like a hyphen or ellipsis); also, at least in juxtaposition haiku, the cut effect does not simply reflect the semantic distance between the fragment and the phrase. We take this effect pattern to indicate that, while constructing the meaning(s) of a haiku involves complex processes of information sampling, hypothesis formation and (re-)checking, it is by focusing on the fragment that the meaning of the poem is eventually achieved.
In subsequent tests, having a few leads to go on, we ventured beyond the retina using EEG recordings. The EEG work allowed us to study in more detail what goes on within an eye fixation and across fixations while reading haiku. It also gave us information about the brain networks that come into play – like the visual cortex for visual word analysis, extraction of word meaning (‘lexical access’) and semantic integration, including perhaps networks involved in ‘aha’ experiences when the meaning of a haiku is worked out.
Analyzing the data we gathered in the EEG study – i.e., the fluctuating brain-electrical activity (“waves”) picked up by multiple electrodes distributed over the reader’s scalp – is a highly complex endeavor. For instance, the EEG data is collected from 64 electrodes each of which is sampled 1000 times a second. Depending on the time taken to read a poem, this is roughly between 250.000 and 500 000 data points per reader and poem. Each eye movement the reader makes (some 3–4 per second), gives rise to activity in the EEG all over the brain. So, to get at activity of interest relating to meaning construction (which evolves over several seconds), we needed to devise methods to identify and remove ‘noise’ activity that only reflects the eye movements as such. Once this noise activity is removed, we can examine what remains for processes involved in understanding haiku. This is akin to developing an approach for finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Having found a solution to this fundamental methodological problem (we are in the process of writing up our analysis approach for publication in a journal: Nasemann et al., “Oscillatory spindles during natural reading,” in preparation), we are currently analyzing the meaning-related components for evidence of the ‘cut effect’. That is, how is the behavioral ‘cut effect’ we found in the same data set reflected in the EEG data, and how is it modulated by the type of haiku (context-action, juxtaposition) and the cut position (end of line 1 vs. end of line 2). We plan to report on this work in another forthcoming paper.
Moving on to our new study, note that EEG has a high temporal resolution (i.e., we can record what happens when), but low spatial resolution (because it is recorded at the scalp surface). In contrast, fMRI has low temporal resolution, but it allows us to localize which brain areas are activated. This is why researchers have started to combine EEG with fMRI – and this is what we set out to do in a new study to be conducted over the next few months.
Accordingly, our new study combines all three techniques (eye-movement recording, EEG, and fMRI), based on our prior work and the insights it afforded. Having received Ethics approval, we are currently addressing some technical issues and piloting the experimental procedures with a view to collecting data from 38–40 participants/readers over the next few months. Given the complexity of the design and work, it may take longer. The most recent impediment: a defective battery in the eye-movement recorder losing charge and needing replacement!
In terms of the study design, we will be re-using the sample of the haiku from our previous work (see sample below). Also, we plan to introduce our participants to what haiku are and how they are constructed beforehand (in the previous studies, most participants were not aware of this genre), and give them more time for reading with a stress on real ‘understanding’ (in our previous work, we could not rule out the possibility that some participants read the poems hurriedly and rather superficially).
Analysis of the data generated by this new study will be quite challenging (and likely to take several months), but we hope it will reveal in more detail what is going on when and where in the brain as we try to understand haiku.
As in our previous studies, our readers will also rate their experience after each haiku, for instance, how well they understood it and whether this was associated with an ‘aha moment’ (a vivid understanding of the haiku). Specifically, participants will press a button while reading whenever they experience an ‘aha moment’. By recording the exact timing of this moment, we hope to find activations in the brain that explicitly reflect insight. This way, we hope to gain an understanding of what goes on in the embodied mind when the meaning of the poem is suddenly revealed to us
Haiku and the Brain Team
Researchers: Thomas Geyer, Jim Kacian, Heinrich R. Liesefeld, Hermann J. Mueller, Jan Nasemann, Stella Pierides, Werner Seitz.
Previously: Franziska Guenther, Qurin Würschinger.
Sample poems used in our research:
drowned moth —
the wax hardens
— Jim Kacian, Presents of Mind (Portland OR: Katsura Press, 1996)
night border crossing —
the elephant calf holds
his mother’s tail
— Sonam Chhoki, Shamrock 26 (2013)
from the lentils . . .
— Mark E. Brager, The Heron’s Nest XVI.3 (2014)
he wonders what else
I haven’t told him
— Melissa Allen, Acorn 26 (2011)
photos of her father
in enemy uniform —
the taste of almonds
— Sandra Simpson, Notes from the Gean 1 (2009)
(All poems reprinted by permission of the authors.)
Article: Müller, H., Geyer, T., Günther, F., Kacian, J., & Pierides, S. (2017). “Reading English-language haiku: Processes of meaning construction revealed by eye movements.” Journal of Eye Movement Research 10.1.
Article: Pierides, S., Müller, H., Kacian, J., Günther, F., & Geyer, T. (2017). “Haiku and the brain: an exploratory study.” Juxtapositions: A Journal of Haiku Research and Scholarship 3.1.
Book Chapter: Geyer, T., Günther, F., Kacian, J., Müller, H. J., & Pierides, S. (2017). “Reading haiku: What eye movements reveal about the construction of literary meaning – an exploratory study.” In T. Lachmann & T. Weis (eds.), Invariances in Human Information Processing. New York & London: Routledge.
Presentation: Günther, F., Müller, H., Geyer, T., Kacian, J., & Pierides, S., “Exploring meaning construction in readers of English-language Haiku: An eye-tracking study.” At the Symposium at the European Conference on Eye Movements (ECEM, Wuppertal, Germany) 2017: “Eye movements during the reading of narrative and poetic text”.
Article: Pierides, S., Geyer, T., Günther, F., Kacian, j., Liesefeld, H. R., and Müller H. J. (2019) “Knocking on the Doors of Perception.” Juxtapositions: Research and Scholarship in Haiku 5.1.
Article: Geyer, T., Günther, F., Müller, H.J., Kacian, J., Liesefeld, H.R., & Pierides, S. (2020). “Reading English-language haiku: An eye-movement study of the ‘cut effect’.” Journal of Eye Movement Research 13 [Special Issue Eye Tracking and Visual Arts].
Müller, H., Geyer, T., Günther, F., Kacian, J., & Pierides, S. (2017). Reading English-Language Haiku: Processes of Meaning Construction Revealed by Eye Movements. Journal of Eye Movement Research 10.1.
Abstract: In the present study, poets and cognitive scientists came together to investigate the construction of meaning in the process of reading normative, 3-line English-language haiku (ELH), as found in leading ELH journals. The particular haiku which we presented to our readers consisted of two semantically separable parts, or images, that were set in a ‘tense’ relationship by the poet. In our sample of poems, the division, or cut, between the two parts was positioned either after line 1 or after line 2; and the images related to each other in terms of either a context–action association (context–action haiku) or a conceptually more abstract association (juxtaposition haiku). From a constructivist perspective, understanding such haiku would require the reader to integrate these parts into a coherent ‘meaning Gestalt’, mentally (re-)creating the pattern intended by the poet (or one from within the poem’s meaning potential). To examine this process, we recorded readers’ eye movements, and we obtained measures of memory for the read poems as well as subjective ratings of comprehension difficulty and understanding achieved. The results indicate that processes of meaning construction are reflected in patterns of eye movements during reading (1st-pass) and re-reading (2nd- and 3rd-pass). From those, the position of the cut (after line 1 vs. after line 2) and, to some extent, the type of haiku (context–action vs. juxtaposition) can be ‘recovered’. Moreover, post-reading, readers tended to explicitly recognize a particular haiku they had read if they had been able to understand the poem, pointing to a role of actually resolving the haiku’s meaning (rather than just attempting to resolve it) for memory consolidation and subsequent retrieval. Taken together, these first findings are promising, suggesting that haiku can be a paradigmatic material for studying meaning construction during poetry reading.
Pierides, S., Müller, H., Kacian, J., Günther, F., Geyer, T. (2017). Haiku and the Brain: An Exploratory Study. Juxtapositions: The Journal of Haiku Research and Scholarship 3.1
Abstract: This paper presents the first results of an interdisciplinary project, bringing together haiku poets and neuro-/cognitive scientists, to investigate the reading of English-language haiku (ELH) as a potentially paradigmatic material for studying the reception of poetic texts. Our pilot study was based on the ‘eye-mind assumption’, that where and for how long we gaze at sections of text reflects processes of information harvesting for meaning construction. The results indicate that the interactive process between the poem and the reader gives rise to characteristic patterns of eye movements (saccades and fixations) across the text from which (i) the position of the cut (after line 1 vs. after line 2) and (ii) the type of haiku (context-action vs. juxtaposition) can be discerned. Finding (i) is of special importance: it provides evidence that the effect intended by the poet can indeed be traced in oculomotor behavior and that, thus, the cut is indeed a potent poetic/stylistic device with a specific effect in the reader. Moreover, readers’ recognition memory was found to be associated with more explicit, conscious-recollective experience of having read a particular haiku if the poem was self-rated to be understood. This suggests that the realization of the haiku’s ‘meaning gestalt’ in the reader’s mind, which may be associated with an ‘aha’ experience, is important for memory consolidation and remembering. Albeit tentative, these findings and conclusions open up interesting lines for future, interdisciplinary research.
Geyer, T., Günther, F., Kacian, J., Müller, H. J., & Pierides, S. (2018). “Reading Haiku: What Eye Movements Reveal About the Construction of Literary Meaning – A Pilot Study.” In T. Lachmann & T. Weis (eds.), Invariances in Human Information Processing. New York & London: Routledge (pp. 249-276).
Abstract: The present study, arising from the co-operation between poets and cognitive scientists, was designed as a pilot experiment to investigate the construction of literary meaning in the process of reading normative English-language, three- line haiku. To this end, the readers’ eye movements were recorded, and (subjective) measures of memory for the read poems as well as subjective ratings of comprehension difficulty and understanding achieved were obtained. The results indicate that, out of the elements created by the poet and placed into a dynamic relation- ship, skillfully using such techniques as juxtaposition of images and caesura, or cut, the reader is invited to unravel the significance of the moment the poet presents, i.e., to reconstruct the experience/construct his/her own meaning. This interactive process between the poem and the reader gives rise to a characteristic pattern of saccades and fixations across the text, from which the type of haiku (context-action vs. juxtaposition) and the position of the cut (after line 1 vs. after line 2) can be predicted. Moreover, readers’ recognition memory was found to be associated with more explicit, conscious-recollective experience of having read a particular haiku if they had been able to understand the poem. This suggests that the ‘aha’ experience, the realization of the haiku’s ‘meaning gestalt’ in the reader’s mind, is important for memory consolidation and subsequent retrieval. Limitations of the present approach are discussed and directions for future work are outlined.
Günther, F., Müller, H., Geyer, T., Kacian, J., & Pierides, S., “Exploring meaning construction in readers of English-language Haiku: An eye-tracking study” at the Symposium at the ECEM 2017: “Eye movements during the reading of narrative and poetic text”
Abstract: The present study – by poets and cognitive scientists – investigated the construction of meaning when reading normative, 3-line English-language haiku (ELH; Müller et al., JEMR, 10(1), 2017). A central design feature of ELH is the presence of a cut (either after line 1 or line 2) and the consequent juxtaposition of two images, which relate to each other in terms of either a context–action association or a conceptually more abstract association (context–action vs. juxtaposition haiku). Understanding such haiku requires readers to resolve the tension between the two parts of the poem, i.e., to integrate the two parts (images) into a coherent ‘meaning Gestalt’.
To examine this process, we recorded readers’ eye movements. The results indicate that processes of meaning construction are reflected in patterns of eye movements during reading (1st-pass) and re-reading (2nd- and 3rd-pass). From those, the position of the cut (after line 1 vs. line 2) and, to some extent, the type of haiku (context–action vs. juxtaposition) can be ‘recovered’. Moreover, results from a recognition memory test indicate that actually resolving the haiku’s meaning plays a role for later, explicit memory retrieval. These findings suggest haiku as an apt material for studying processes of meaning construction during poetry reading.
Pierides, S., Geyer, T., Günther, F., Kacian, j., Liesefeld, H. R., and Müller H. J. (2019) “Knocking on the Doors of Perception.” Juxtapositions: Research and Scholarship in Haiku 5.1.
Abstract: Haiku has been shown to be fruitful material in investigating the manner in which we come to appreciate poetic and literary texts, providing a promising path for understanding the neuro-cognitive processes of poetry reading. The latter accolade, by way of our first study, has now found further evidence in our second series of tests, which repeated and extended the first. Specifically, the use of the ‘cut’ in haiku creates a recognizable trace which is reflected in the pattern of eye movements that readers make in their efforts to understand the poem – with the eye movements telling us where attention, and mental effort, is focused during initial reading and re-reading. Our new findings show that the use of explicit punctuation to mark the cut in haiku (such as dashes and ellipses) modifies the eye-movement pattern in characteristic ways compared to poems with unmarked cuts. Following a sketch and discussion of the new findings and their implications for understanding how we read haiku, we consider a number of interesting questions and methodological approaches for further research on how the ‘mind-brain’ constructs poetic meaning.
Geyer, T., Günther, F., Müller, H.J., Kacian, J., Liesefeld, H.R., & Pierides, S. (2020). “Reading English-language haiku: An eye-movement study of the ‘cut effect’.” Journal of Eye Movement Research 13 [Special Issue Eye Tracking and Visual Arts].
Abstract:The current study, set within the larger enterprise of Neuro-Cognitive Poetics, was designed to examine how readers deal with the ‘cut’ – a more or less sharp semantic-conceptual break — in normative, three-line English-language haiku poems (ELH). Readers were presented with three-line haiku that consisted of two (seemingly) disparate parts, a (two-line) ‘phrase’ image and a one-line ‘fragment’ image, in order to determine how they process the conceptual gap between these images when constructing the poem’s meaning – as reflected in their patterns of reading eye movements. In addition to replicating the basic ‘cut effect’, i.e., the extended fixation dwell time on the fragment line relative to the other lines, the present study examined (a) how this effect is influenced by whether the cut is purely implicit or explicitly marked by punctuation, and (b) whether the effect pattern could be delineated against a control condition of ‘uncut’, one-image haiku. For ‘cut’ vs. ‘uncut’ haiku, the results revealed the distribution of fixations across the poems to be modulated by the position of the cut (after line 1 vs. after line 2), the presence vs. absence of a cut marker, and the semantic-conceptual distance between the two images (context–action vs. juxtaposition haiku). These formal-structural and conceptual-semantic properties were associated with systematic changes in how individual poem lines were scanned at first reading and then (selectively) re-sampled in second- and third-pass reading to construct and check global meaning. No such effects were found for one-image (control) haiku. We attribute this pattern to the operation of different meaning resolution processes during the comprehension of two-image haiku, which are invoked by both form- and meaning-related features of the poems.
The Haiku and the Brain project has joined the Interdisciplinary Center for Cognitive Language Studies (ICCLS), an international network of scientists based at the Ludwig Maximilan University (LMU) Munich. ICCLS offers researchers from a variety of disciplines and institutions, a platform for intensive exchange of ideas, and interdisciplinary working-together on research projects.
See the website url here
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