Eugen Wassiliwizky

Eugen Wassiliwizky has studied Psychology with main emphasis on Cognitive Neuroscience as well as Classics and Musicology at the Philipps University in Marburg, the McGill University in Montreal and at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig. His main research topics include neural and physiological aspects of aesthetic emotions – especially in response to film and poetry. Eugen Wassiliwizky holds a doctoral degree in Psychology from the Free University Berlin and is currently a member of the research staff at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt.

Which topics will you address at the IGEL Conference 2020?

My talk will be on neural and psychophysiological processes of emotionally intense reading experiences, or rather listening experiences, as most of my research deals with recited poetry. This is a very ancient and enormously powerful form of aesthetic expression. For many centuries, it was regarded as the supreme discipline in the language-related arts (the expression of something being ‘prosaic’ still reminds us of this tradition, i.e., the subordinate position of prose in comparison to poetry). Being at the intersection between language and music, poetry is able of expressing many different things in a remarkably economic way. What is more, poetry can easily oscillate between and mix different emotions, which is an essential prerequisite for making the listener feeling moved.

You may remember Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s touching performance of a poem about the threats of the ongoing climate change in front of the United Nations in 2014. In this poem, she is mixing the emotions of love to her newborn daughter with fear casting a shadow on the future of their home (Marshall Islands in the Pacific) and her resolve to fight against reckless companies and politics. In public media, Jetnil-Kijiner’s poem has been praised to “move the world leaders to tears”.

Interestingly, despite its power and its longstanding tradition in the humanities and in the arts, we know surprisingly little about the neural and physiological processes that underlie the emotional impact of poetic language. In my talk, I will address some of these mechanisms, which we were able to identify over the last years. I will also argue why poetic language is particularly suitable for empirical research.

What brought you to this topic?

I think this has primarily biographical reasons. I was raised in an environment that placed a great value on poetry and music. This enthusiasm stuck to me throughout my personal life and could finally even be integrated into my academic career. It began with a very simple question: Can we have emotional goosebumps while listening to moving poetry? I knew the research on music-elicited chills, of course, but while reading it, I couldn’t agree that this is a purely musical phenomenon. This was my point of departure. Later, I became interested in the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon and in the differences to the musical domain.

What, in your view, is the main value of IGEL?

For me, IGEL has the great potential to bring together very divergent academic traditions and thereby to give answers to highly complex problems. By nature, aesthetic stimuli are enormously complex. We see this complexity in their composition, in their processing, and in their effects. In order to study these things properly, we inevitably need input from different disciplines. In my view, interdisciplinary work can be boiled down to a very simple formula with two ingredients: Everybody contributes what their discipline can do best and every voice is equally important.

What are your expectations for the IGEL Conference 2020?

I hope this conference will be as exciting and fruitful as the previous ones.

Back to: Department of English