Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Your Brain on Novels

When Sharon wrote about the reader's state of mind on Monday, she wasn't thinking about that soft, squishy stuff inside our skulls.

But I am. 

Cognition and its workings are a bit of a hobby for me. When I nosed around for some science of reading stuff, I found an enlightening (pun intended) article.

Let me start by saying that my new goal as a fiction writer is to light up brains. That's what good fiction does according to "Your Brain on Fiction" by Annie Murphy Paul in the NY Times. The fMRI machine is giving us a glimpse of how the brain reacts to all of the old chestnuts of writing we've been practicing.

For instance, if someone laying in a fMRI machine reads a cliche, the result in the brain is absolutely nothing. No lights. No rush of blood. Darkness. But if the person reads a metaphor, like "the singer had a velvet voice," the part of the brain that processes texture/touch lights up. 

Lights up!

And those strong (specific) nouns and vivid verbs we've been harping on lately, they light up the visual cortex by creating a picture for the reader to "see."

Even nouns associated with smell, like "perfume," "coffee," and "popcorn" turn the lights on in the olfactory part of the brain. This is wild, and yet, so understandable for those of us who read voraciously. (I hankered for pork ribs while reading Gap Creek.)

"The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated." 

It gets even better. As fiction writers, we can give the reader a vicarious experience that teaches to be more empathetic and social. 

And here's why: 

"Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings...that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective."

For me, this means word choice does matter, that exquisitely crafted characters and stories are worth the time I invest, and that we have scientific proof of what we've known all along: Storytellers play an incredibly important role in the preservation, enhancement, and healing of societies.

How does this information change the way you think about your craft?


Suzy Parish said...

Whoa! Get me a tub of hot buttered popcorn! (Did I make you want some?) Here are the implications of this for novels vs. movies: Until they perfect smell-a-vision and video games that give you special tactile suits to wear, we novelists have the edge on bringing our audience directly into the scene.
I always knew I was more drawn in to the story when reading than when watching a movie but this explains (at least for me) why. I am going away now to chew on this information a bit more. This also underscores the huge responsibility we have as writers. Next I'd like to see a writer's brain during an MRI. When I've written a particularly emotional scene I am drained physically and need a break. I'd love to see which parts of my brain are lighting up, probably the same as the reader's. Thanks for a great post!

Cherry Odelberg said...

I am both a musician and a story-teller. It is sacred and holy ground where I empty myself in confession and whole hearted effort. Healing for me comes when I see the light of healing in others.

Today, I am sorely needing a nice long walk; a long session at the piano; and some good, very good fiction to read.

Patti Hill said...

Suzy: Yes, I'm craving popcorn now! I like that you mentioned the emotional cost to writers. We live another life as we write, too. Right now, I'm a 30-something girl who is trapped. I have to remind myself that the much older and mobile Patti is free to do some pretty wild things...for me.

Cherry: Oh yes. That's the reward for all the quiet hours alone, troubling over word choices, motivations, and that just-right foil for the protagonist. When a reader (listener) responds with an epiphany of their own and the strength to go on, that's holy and sweet.

No rain today. I hope you get your long walk.

Latayne C. Scott said...

Oh! That reminds me of what Emily Dickinson said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” (L342a, 1870)

Patti Hill said...

Latayne, thanks for sharing Emily with us. Perfect.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

May I comment on Sharon and Patti together? I just happened to be rereading a book I had rejected when these posts came up. I wanted to finish the story before I replied here.
It was an early novel by one of my favourite authors, John Buchan. Written in 1900. Even the title is discouraging: The Half-Hearted. I put it down in the earlier attempt because it is all telling, not much showing. I recognise all the immature elements of writing but, with more experience with his later works, I am able this time to see behind the words into the mind of the man. The genius was there; the message of nobility and striving for redemption beyond this mad scramble called 'world'. It is also a highly ambitious story for a beginner. The hero finds redemption in death. There is no 'happy ending' but a sacred uplifting that blows my soul wide open. His later book, Sick Heart River is the consummation of this philosophy. Also Rudyard Kiplings' The Light that Failed. I am quite sure the two men knew each other. It was the attitude of the times.
In reading this book I have nestled in a crag in the Scottish Highlands, tickled trout from a burn, been snowed and rained on, loved expecting no requiting, waltzed with frivolous debutantes on the Afghan/Indian border, seen Russian troops marching with Afghan hill tribes, been splattered with blood in battle and finally....well, I won't spoil the ending just in case someone wants to dig this book up.
It is a hard read because the immaturity means the vivid word pictures are few. My brain was on cliche mode hungering for metaphor mode. When the metaphor did come, and it did often enough this time for me to stay to the end, there were fireworks.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Henrietta, what an insightful comment. Thank you for sharing about The Half-Hearted and its author.