Poetry that evokes vivid mental imagery is more aesthetically pleasing to readers, say scientists who have found several factors that make people like poems.
Aesthetics, the underpinnings of what we find appealing or not, play an important role in our everyday lives - from deciding what to wear in the morning to choosing what to listen to during your commute. However, little is known about how we make these judgements.
The researchers sought to answer an age-old question - "Why do we like what we like?" - by gauging what we find aesthetically pleasing in poetry.
"People disagree on what they like, of course," said Amy Belfi, a postdoctoral fellow in New York University (NYU) at the time of the study.
"While it may seem obvious that individual taste matters in judgements of poetry, we found that despite individual disagreement, it seems that certain factors consistently influence how much a poem will be enjoyed," said Belfi, lead author of the study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.
Researchers had more than 400 participants read and rate poems of two genres - haiku and sonnet - with the aim of understanding the factors that best predicted the aesthetic appeal of the poems.
After reading each poem, participants answered questions about the poems vividness, emotional arousal, emotional valence and aesthetic appeal.
Their results showed that vividness of mental imagery was the best predictor of aesthetic appeal - poems that evoked greater imagery were more pleasing.
Emotional valence also predicted aesthetic appeal, though to a lesser extent; specifically, poems that were found to be more positive were generally found to be more appealing.
By contrast, emotional arousal did not have a clear relationship to aesthetic appeal.
Notably, readers did not at all agree on what poems they found appealing, an outcome that supports the notion that people have different tastes; nonetheless, there is common ground - vividness of imagery and emotional valence - in what explains these tastes, even if they vary.
"The vividness of a poem consistently predicted its aesthetic appeal," said Gabrielle Starr, dean of NYUs College of Arts and Science.
"Therefore, it seems that vividness of mental imagery may be a key component influencing what we like more broadly,"
"While limited to poetry, our work sheds light into which components most influence our aesthetic judgements and paves the way for future research investigating how we make such judgements in other domains," she said.