Measuring the effect

September 23, 2016

Winfried Menninghaus, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, is studying how people react to poetry and prose, not only mentally but also physically. For many classical philologists and Germanists, his work is a betrayal of their disciplines. Yet in fact, he is succeeding for the first time in rendering the effect of poetic and rhetoric language measurable. In addition, he is also reviving another ancient discipline that has been shabbily treated for far too long – rhetoric.

Text: Martin Roos

Among the plantings in the interior courtyard of the Frankfurt Institute, a row of pink-coloured letters stand almost as tall as a person. The lettering seems to point rather insistently to exactly what the researchers here at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics are concerned with: beauty. “No, no,” Winfried Menninghaus protests with a smile, half-clouded with resignation. If truth be told, it was the real estate company that erected the illuminated sculpture to advertise the building. The “kitsch in pink”, Menninghaus claps his hands together, was “a pure coincidence”. A tall, lean man with untamed reddish hair that sticks out like that of the inventor Doc Brown in the fantasy film “Back to the Future”, he is head of the “Language and Literature” Department and Founding Director of the Institute, established in 2012.

It is more than beauty alone that matters here. The researchers are investigating how people react physiologically to aesthetic stimuli – including film, dance, music or indeed language and above all poetry. “Who likes what and why” is the alliterative question they strive to answer. “The humanities propose aesthetic theories,” says Menninghaus, “we test them against individuals with a wide variety of backgrounds.” With its intense programme and its technical facilities, the Institute is unique worldwide.

Here, listening to music, watching films or absorbing poetry is an act undertaken in the service of science. But it would be a mistake to imagine the test subjects laid on soft cushions and plied with Lucullan beverages while Scheherazade whispers her poems and Josephine Baker demonstrates the banana dance. The Institute procedures call to mind a medical research laboratory. The participants are seated in soundproof booths, where sensors attached to their fingertips measure skin resistance, monitors on their wrists record their heart rate and, dependent on their emotional state, a miniature camera films the goose bumps on their forearms. Some wear a hood studded with electrodes on their head to record the activity of nerve cells in the brain. “Nowadays, almost everything can be measured,” explains Menninghaus, for example “how long a subject spends looking at which word. This gives us an indication of attentiveness.”

From the beginning of his scientific career, Menninghaus has been studying the effects of beauty and elementary features of aesthetic sensibility – not always to the gratification of conservative colleagues. Back in the 1970s, they were unimpressed when, as an enthusiastic poetry student, he attempted to reinterpret the poems of Paul Celan through the medium of colour. However, no one denied the ingenuity of his approach, and so Menninghaus went his own way. He was invited to be a visiting professor at almost every high-profile university in the world, including Berkeley, the École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales in Paris and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Princeton and Yale offered him professorships.  But before coming to Frankfurt three years ago, Menninghaus remained faithful to the Freie Universität in Berlin, where he spent many years as a professor of general and comparative literary science.

Putting poetry to the test is not alchemy

As one of the most versatile, but also disputed literary scientists, it is small wonder that Menninghaus still to this day is compelled to tolerate criticism. On the one hand, Menninghaus is aware of the unvoiced arrogance with which natural scientists behold such a “soft” discipline as aesthetics. On the other hand, he also senses the deep scepticism which most literary scientists feel for the methodologies of natural science and so also for him. Critics ask, how is one supposed to measure the quality of a poem by such criteria as twitching eyes and sweating armpits? Are Menninghaus and his team like the alchemists of old in search of the golden formula – or in this case, the recipe for the perfect poem?

“Of course not,” says Menninghaus. “We don’t create recipes here. It is primarily a question of perception.” He is able to ignore the accusation that his research is “an exercise in bean counting”. But the tendency on the part of many colleagues to use the concept of “effective poetics” as a term of abuse is something he cannot accept. Menninghaus cites the great linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson, who once taught that our “poetic language function” is always “on”. The question that Menninghaus sought to answer was: Is that really so, do we perceive even everyday sentences also aesthetically? “Today, we can say that Jakobson was right. We are proving the point on a daily basis at our Institute. We have found the objective data.”

Together with ten colleagues, among them Germanists, literary, film and neuroscientists, two visiting scientists and half a dozen grant students, he is constantly refining and developing new categories and methods in order to meaningfully describe features with aesthetic effect – ranging from verbal descriptions such as “beautiful”, “boring”, “exciting” or “humorous” to comparative studies of language structures in terms of rhythm, metre or even linguistic melody. One important finding :  “Regardless of which texts we hear or read, our physical selves always respond,” says Menninghaus. And poetry in particular moves us emotionally almost as much as our favourite music.

Planets are ill prophets

The powerful effect of lyric verse, Menninghaus explains, is attributable to the fact that not only have we for many generations – at least since ancient times – been familiar with metrical speech, with Christian hymns and later with folk songs, but that each of us since birth through preverbal communication with our parents has become accustomed to the verse-like rhythm of speech prosody. Oversimplifying the point: “It is through lyric that we come to language,” says Menninghaus. This is why our attention is particularly drawn to rhythm and rhyme. The researchers demonstrate this using structured sentences from which certain stylistic features are specifically removed in order to see which stimulate the aesthetic desires of readers or listeners, and in what way.

If the sentence “planets are ill prophets” is presented to test persons without the alliterative rhyme, as for example: “the stars are ill prophets”, the statement is received with measurably less “presence”. If one now removes not the rhyme, but the rhythm from the original sentence, as for example: “planets are highly unreliable prophets”, there is a further reduction in effect. Devoid of both rhyme and rhythm, the sentence regains some of its presence, not least because it is now clearly understandable: “stars are not trustworthy prophets”. However, of all the sentence variants, despite the somewhat crude content, the original statement “planets are ill prophets” unambiguously achieves the greatest effect. The reason is that aesthetic and affective perception responds most strongly to metrical language.

“We also respond with close attention to sentences or verses when these break certain rules,” explains Menninghaus. For example, Ikea’s German slogan “Wohnst du noch oder lebst du schon?” (Are you just living, or are you already alive?) breaks several rules. The question “Are you just living?” is shortened, and should normally read something like: “Are you just living in your old apartment?” and “Are you already alive?” is paradoxical, given one may be “still” alive, but hardly “already alive”. Taken together, the two questions would be entirely meaningless, were it not clear that this is a message from a furniture and lifestyle designer. “Our brains have to work hard and fill in the gaps to decode the sentence. And that is what makes it so catchy,” explains Menninghaus.

For a long time, Menninghaus’ team also pondered the question of whether positive and negative feelings, joy and sadness, cancel one another out when appreciating art. In fact, the opposite is the case. “The measurement curves for physical reactions to negative and positive affects both peaked at almost exactly the same time,” says Menninghaus. Or to put it another way: the more the tears flow, the greater the enjoyment. It is a matter of “being moved”.

And that, for Menninghaus, brings us full circle back to an ancient discipline that has long been forgotten - not least owing to its misuse during the Third Reich: rhetoric. “Among its wealth of figures of speech and poetic features, there were always some important factors that determined aesthetic appreciation," he explains. Yet rhetoric was scarcely perceived any longer in this way. It is precisely the “movere” of ancient rhetoric, the power to move, to stir and to shake, that fascinates Menninghaus. It was not without reason that he and his team conducted several extensive studies on “being moved”. The study impressively showed once more that “being moved” almost always involves a mix of joy and sadness. Thus, ancient rhetoric remains up to date, which is another reason why Menninghaus is very keen to amalgamate the language production elements of rhetoric with aesthetic theory, literary and musicological analysis techniques, linguistic modelling and the latest methods and theories in the fields of psychology and neurosciences.

Trash beats all

Yet, for all the rigours of science – the exuberant researcher is always ready for some serious fun. For example, one of his colleagues came up with an intriguing result when he asked trash film audiences, “Why are you watching this?” As individuals, they proved to have an above-average standard of education. And their answer: They were bored with the mainstream and found it fun to watch anti-films while maintaining a certain ironic distance and enjoying the miserable quality as anti-mainstream. “The data were clearer and more meaningful than we had expected,” says Menninghaus. “What we did not even remotely anticipate was the huge media response to the publication of our study. Welcome to pop culture!” Within six weeks, over 1,000 reviews appeared in newspapers the world over, with interview requests from as far away as Africa. Menninghaus is still amazed: “I’ll never manage that with all our other studies put together.” 

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