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Sweet Silent Thought: Alliteration and Resonance in Poetry Comprehension

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From nursery rhymes to Shakespearian sonnets, alliterations have always been an important aspect of poetry whether as an interesting aesthetic touch or just as something fun to read. But a recent study suggests that this literary technique is useful not only for poetry but also for memory.

In several experiments, researchers R. Brooke Lea of Macalester College, David N. Rapp of Northwestern University, Andrew Elfenbein and Russell Swinburne Romine of University of Minnesota and Aaron D. Mitchel of the Pennsylvania State University had participants read works of poetry and prose with alliterative sentences to show the importance of repetitive consonants on memory.

Previous studies have shown that alliteration can act as a better tool for memory than both imagery and meaning, however the reason for this has never been established. In their experiments the researchers hoped to demonstrate that alliterations retrieve similar sounding words and phrases from a person’s memory, making it a useful tool for poetry comprehension and memorization.

In one experiment, a group of participants read aloud poems with similar alliterative sounds throughout it while other participants had to read aloud poems with either different alliterative sounds or no alliterations at all. A second experiment had the same conditions, except that participants read a series of poems silently. The final experiment had participants read a work of narrative prose, also with the same conditions in regards to alliterative sounds in the literature. In each experiment, participants had to recall both content and thematic aspects from the works that they read.

The results of all three experiments underscore the interaction between alliteration and memory. In each of the experiments, participants in the same-alliteration condition were able to recall the most from the literature they read.

“In our experiments, concepts presented early in a poem (or prose passage) were more available when alliterative sounds overlapped between lines than when there was no overlap,” the researchers reported.

Additionally, the results of the other experiments, published in the July issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show that alliteration’s affect on memory is not lessened by either the type of work it is used in or whether or not the literature is read silently or aloud. Most importantly, the results demonstrate alliteration only works as a tool for memory when the alliterative sounds are similar; while the participants in the same-alliteration condition did well in each experiment, those in the other two conditions had similar, less impressive results.

Psychological Science Volume 19, Issue 7, Date: July 2008, Pages: 709-716
Sweet Silent Thought: Alliteration and Resonance in Poetry Comprehension
R. Brooke Lea, David N. Rapp, Andrew Elfenbein, Aaron D. Mitchel, Russell Swinburne Romine
ABSTRACT—Poetic devices like alliteration can heighten readers’ aesthetic experiences and enhance poets’ recall of their epic pieces. The effects of such devices on memory for and appreciation of poetry are well known; however, the mechanisms underlying these effects are not yet understood. We used current theories of language comprehension as a framework for understanding how alliteration affects comprehension processes. Across three experiments, alliterative cues reactivated readers’ memories for previous information when it was phonologically similar to the cue. These effects were obtained when participants read aloud and when they read silently, and with poetry and prose. The results support everyday intuitions about the effects of poetry and aesthetics, and explain the nature of such effects. These findings extend the scope of general memory models by indicating their capacity to explain the influence of nonsemantic discourse features.

Written by huehueteotl

August 1, 2008 at 7:56 am

Posted in Psychology

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