How brain science can make you a better writer
A TV ad for kayak.com features an unscrupulous doctor manipulating a patient's exposed brain, turning him into a puppet who flails away at a keyboard hunting and pecking for online travel deals. It's funny to some, offensive to others, but it illustrates a larger point that is important for writers. The brain influences the way readers respond to words, for better or worse.
A growing body of research reveals that different parts of the brain respond to language in unique ways. Neuroscientists learned this by observing brain scans as subjects read. Writers can take advantage of these findings to connect with readers in deep, intimate and lasting ways. And you don't have to be a brain scientist to do it, just apply the same kind of techniques that writing teachers have been preaching for years.
The science of “this is your brain,” “this is your brain on stories,” is relatively straightforward. It starts with a geography lesson, based on the principle that the map of the brain locates multiple areas that control the way we move, see, hear, taste, smell, touch and remember.
It’s long been understood that the neocortex, the thinking part of the brain that separates humans from all other species, interprets language through the Broca's area and Wernicke’s area. But their powers are limited: they enable us to understand words, but nothing more.
That’s why traditional news articles with their passive verb forms, collective nouns ("officials said”) and clichés have so little impact on readers. Flabby prose turns off readers because it doesn't turn on the brain. Neuroscience shows how carefully chosen words and the tools of storytelling activate parts of the brain other than those that process language to make reading a deep, resonant and lasting experience.
A fascinating essay, "Your Brain on Fiction," by Annie Murphy Paul, details these developments.
She describes how researchers at Emory University earlier this year discovered that the phrase "he had leathery hands” aroused the sensory cortex that activated the sense of touch. Spanish researchers found that words like “cinnamon” and “soap” triggered a response from the olfactory cortex which processes smells.
A French team learned that action verbs, such as "Pablo kicked the ball," fired up the motor cortex, which governs how the body moves. Not only that, but verbs that involved different parts of the body, such as the arm or leg, activated the parts of the brain that controls those specific limbs. Evocative language also reaches into the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory, and plays an important role in the way the mind turns language into meaningful experience, a goal for all writers.
Based on these findings, we can take advantage of this three-pound organ with its 86 billion nerve cells to enrich our writing. Here are five ways:
- Create scenes. The combination of characters in action, dialogue and evocative settings lies at the heart of what novelist John Gardner called “the vivid continuous dream” that captivates readers.
- Dig for details, the more specific the better. If you want to get a reader’s mind to visualize what they’re reading, a “cherry-red ’67 Mustang convertible” does a much better job than “a car.” “The recording of such details is not mere embroidery in prose,” Tom Wolfe wrote in “The New Journalism." “It lies as close to the center of the power of realism as any other device in literature.”
- Choose vivid action verbs. “Michaela grabbed her umbrella and dashed into the rain” triggers the motor cortex. Strong verbs are not just words on the page. They represent action in the reader’s mind.
- Avoid passive verb forms. “The body was found” is not only a flabby word choice that robs the verb of energy and fails to ignite the brain. It usually signifies weak reporting. “A seven-year-old newsboy found the body” heightens the senses.
- Cultivate a “a nose for story.” Consider the power of the scented details in this sentence by Anne Hull of The Washington Post: “Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon.” The brain’s olfactory bulb not only lets us smell. It also triggers memories in the hippocampus. “Hit a tripwire of smell,” Diane Ackerman writes in “A Natural History of the Senses,” “and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”
Neuroscience offers profound lessons on the power of story. You can use this knowledge to bring stories alive in readers’ minds. For writers and readers, the brain is a terrible thing to waste.