Lighting up your reader’s brain: Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?

What if a reader’s neocortex actually lit up because he recognized your cab driver’s distinctive Hoboken snarl?

Or her hypothalamus sent off sparks because she could practically taste the creamy hot chocolate with handmade vanilla marshmallows that your heroine sipped at the Bittersweet Café?

There’s scientific evidence that books really do turn on our brains.

The brain’s response to the written word can be seen in scans using technology called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), that illuminate in bright lights and colors the increased flow of blood through synapses of the brain as we read.

“We fiction writers don’t have to think of ourselves as mere storytellers anymore,” Livia Blackburne, a graduate student in neuroscience at MIT and a YA author, wrote recently on her blog, A Brain Scientist’s Take on Creative Writing.  “Nope, we’re brain manipulators. That’s right. Read the words on my page and your neurons will do my bidding. Mwahahahahaha.”

Hmm.  Intrigued, I phoned up Livia in Cambridge to ask if writers could really manipulate readers’ brains so their books might have greater success.

Q: Can a writer use specific words to evoke emotions of fear, anxiety, surprise, or happiness in the reader’s brain?

A: I would recommend that writers use vivid descriptions and precise language, so readers can form a clear mental picture of what’s going on.

Make the reader identify with the characters.  The closer a reader feels to the character, the more they will empathize with and experience what the characters go through. Events that bear similarities to what the reader has personally experienced will strike a deeper chord with the reader.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: Viewing pictures of faces with emotional expressions — especially fearful faces, will cause an automatic negative emotional response in people.  I don’t know of any studies that say how well this transfers to written descriptions of facial expression, but it might be something fun to play with.

Q: Would an increase in brain activation be the same for every reader?

A: The regions will be similar, but not identical. If you scan many people reading the same passage, you’ll find the extent and intensity of activation varies not only between individuals but also within one individual at different scanning sessions.

Q: Does lighting up a scan mean that the reader is more engaged or excited by these words?

A: Reading a page or screen can activate the brain in at least two ways. First, the words activate a specialized word and language network in the brain’s left hemisphere.

Second, at a deeper level, readers show brain activity in regions depending on the meaning and content of the words. This is because some of the areas of the brain we use to imagine events are the same areas that would in reality process the events if we were to actually experience them.

For example, a vivid visual description will activate visual regions of the brain, while descriptions of a character’s thoughts and motivations will activate portions of the brain that handle social reasoning.

Note that this type of activation isn’t necessarily restricted to reading — you would get similar brain behavior in people watching movies or listening to a story.

Q: So it’s true that attention or excitement will increase brain activation?

A: Yes, but it’s not the only possible explanation. Many other factors can affect blood flow to a certain region.  For example, increased task difficulty is a factor, so if the passage is hard to understand, there may be increased activation.  Or it could mean the reader is thinking about something else that happens to be activating the same region.  Even the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will affect activation levels to some degree.

Q: Any other tips you can offer as a neuroscientist and writer, for creating a literary work capable of lighting up our brains?

A: First a cautionary note: More widespread or intense activation is not necessarily better.  Just because a passage lights up more brain regions doesn’t mean it provides a better or more realistic reading experience.

Second, the best way to judge the quality of a passage is still to have people read it and give you feedback.  Therefore, I would discourage anyone from using  brain scan results as the only way to improve their writing.

Nevertheless, I do like to think of brain research findings as brainstorming (no pun intended) fodder.

If you know about certain brain regions and what they process, you can keep them in mind as more tricks for your writer’s toolbox.

So what brain regions are there?  Well, there are the five senses, as well as regions that process emotions, faces, motions, objects and landscape/locations. There are also regions that process peoples’ motivations, and how they feel about themselves and others.

________________

Fascinating stuff.  Livia suggests that writers can use information about brain regions as a source of ideas for details to include in their narratives. Are you using all five senses? What about movement? Are your characters complex enough for the reader to infer motivations, thoughts, and feelings from their actions?

What do you say, writers?  Is this news you can use?

18 Responses to Lighting up your reader’s brain: Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?

  1. Marilynn Byerly

    It’s another explanation of why the five W’s are important for fiction as well as nonfiction– who, what, when, where, and why.

  2. Kelly Bryson

    I love this subject. I did a review of the neuromarketing book ‘BUYOLOGY’ by Martin Lindstrom a few weeks ago. There’s a link in the blog to an fMRI of a person watching the trailer for the movie ‘Avatar’. Some conclusions reminded me of common writing advice- have characters talk to each other because relationships are inherently more interesting than personal musing.

    http://bookreadress.blogspot.com/2009/10/review-of-buy-ology-by-martin-lindstrom.html

  3. Lia Grimanis

    Here’s an interesting perspective. In my community work, we work to use the power of our own success stories to help homeless women today to rebuild their lives. We’re a gang of women who are all living extraordinary lives and we were all once homeless.

    In an effort to understand what helped us to rebuild, we’ve been looking for commonalities in the strategies that we used to change our lives dramatically. One of the answers took us straight to neuroscience.

    When you think of, or engage in new possibilities, it triggers an enriched flow of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter directly related to our reward center. It triggers imagination, energy, ambition, focus and confidence; all of the qualities that we need to be able to suspend our harsh reality and change our circumstances for the better. We call it “possibility thinking”. Art of any kind can do this for you.

    Norman Doidge writes in The Brain that Changes Itself that dopamine places the brain in the ideal state for neuroplasticity. This is no surprise to those of us who have lived through the unimaginable and found a way to achieve the life we desired, rather than be bogged down by the damage that trauma and affliction may have done.

    If we, as writers, write to inspire and incite new possibilities in people, the effective writer will send the reader on an exploration of new realms. It encourages the reader to dream and, if that dream takes them somewhere they want to go, the dopamine rush literally helps to rewire their brains and boost their awareness and drive to move in that direction. In this way, we achieve what would otherwise be logically impossible. We become who we want to be.

  4. Victoria Mixon

    “We become who we want to be.” Lia, I love this.

    I’ve been using this theory in early childhood education—particularly alternative education and handling disclosure among battered children—since the early 1980s. Young children literally become who you tell them they already are.

    As John Gardner said, the writer must always maintain the “fictional dream.” This is why showing a story through action, dialog, and description—putting the reader in the scene alongside the characters, as if they were actually there—is more addicting than just telling the reader about what happened. When readers feel they’re actually experiencing a story, it changes who they believe they are.

    It’s all about the reader’s personal experience of the story.

    Thanks for the great information, Livia! How nice to see you here.

    best,
    Victoria

  5. Marcia Dream

    The fact that reading your book activates a part of your reader’s brain doesn’t necessarily mean that your reader enjoys what he is reading.

    It just means that the reader’s brain is active. It would have to be, wouldn’t it?

  6. Questions Answered this Week, by Lit Agents « Leith Literary

    [...] LINK DU JOUR DE LA SEMAINE: At the Book Deal blog, publisher Alan Rinzler answers some fascinating questions about writing in light of discoveries in neuroscience.  You don’t have to write cyberpunk to appreciate these methods for hacking your [...]

  7. Tania Hershman

    What a great post – I am a short story writer with a passion for science, and soon to be fiction-writer-in-residence at Bristol University’s science faculty here in the UK, so loved the mixing of the two here! However, the main point, “Make the reader identify with the characters. The closer a reader feels to the character, the more they will empathize with and experience what the characters go through. Events that bear similarities to what the reader has personally experienced will strike a deeper chord with the reader” is exactly what we writers strive to do anyway, in my opinion. While it would no doubt be a publisher’s dream for a writer to possess the secret formula for how to hook a reader in neuroscience terms, I doubt it would be any more profound or mysterious than that written above.

    And, thank goodness, readers want different things, different experiences, different types of books – otherwise there would only be one shelf in every bookshop. Science is more wonderful to me for the questions is asks and the creativity that scientists employ trying to delve into the universe than for any kinds of black and white answers some might wish for!

  8. Livia Blackburne

    Tania, that’s a great point, and it really shows how we shouldn’t take the generations of writers and storytellers that came before us for granted. I mean, they didn’t have access to brain scanners or anything, and they figured this stuff out anyways, just by telling stories and seeing which ones worked! In some ways, you could even say that literature and psychology/neuroscience are doing the same thing — they’re both trying to get at different aspects of human nature.

  9. Gail Handler

    A fascinating topic! As a 30 year elementary school teacher I totally agree. Brain-based research teaches us the importance of engaging children emotionally and physically, as well as both halves of the brain. Now as a children’s book author, it drives me toward expressing more interconnectivenesss within my characters.

    Great post!

  10. Bernard S. Jansen

    Thanks Alan, for another great article.

    I think there are some areas of the brain that you certainly don’t want to “activate”. I think we are all “jarred” out of that semi-hypnotic book-reading state when something isn’t quite right (factually, grammatically, realistically, etc). There must be an “analytical” part of the brain that activates at that time. You don’t really want that sort of analysis going on when you (or your readers) are reading fiction.

  11. terena

    Fascinating. And a good way to look at using sensory details. I think this will help writers understand the depth of the sensory details they need to use and why. If you can actually make the reader smell the raspberry tea your protagonist is brewing, then you’ve written a great scene.

  12. Livia Blackburne

    Bernard — that’s an interesting thought. There are certainly brain responses to errors– different ones for grammatical vs. pragmatic errors. It’d be interesting to see how those affect the rest of the processing.

  13. Tools For Contemporary Writers « 40kBooks

    [...] # Lighting up your reader’s brain: Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer? Fascinating stuff.  Livia suggests that writers can use information about brain regions as a source of ideas for details to include in their narratives. Are you using all five senses? What about movement? Are your characters complex enough for the reader to infer motivations, thoughts, and feelings from their actions? Read more. [...]

  14. Friday To Friday: Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer? « 40kBooks

    [...] «Hmm», wrote Alan Rinzler, «Intrigued, I phoned up Livia in Cambridge to ask if writers could really manipulate readers’ brains so their books might have greater success.» Here you can find the interview. [...]

  15. What does reading or writing mean to you? « 40kBooks

    [...] "Hmm", wrote Alan Rinzler, "Intrigued, I phoned up Livia in Cambridge to ask if writers could really manipulate readers’ brains so their books might have greater success." Here you can find the interview. [...]

  16. Cynthia Haggard

    What readers need to do is activate the memory processor in the hippocampus, because that is where new memories are formed. The best way to do that, as many have noted, is to use sensory descriptions. The sense of smell is a particularly powerful prompt, because the entorhinal cortex, which processes smell, sits right next to it. Read the description of the memory evoked by eating a Madeleine in Proust’s SWANN’S WAY.

    I loved the article and discussion as a former neuroscientist, and now novelist.

  17. What happens in the brain when you read « 40kBooks

    [...] is author of From Words To Brain. Read also: Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?. Twitter: @lkblackburne.Tom, experimental psychologist, is the author of The Narrative Escape. [...]

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