A Writer on “Your Brain on Fiction”

By NEUROtiker (Own work) GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)

I’m sure your cranium is flooded with advice about avoiding common metaphor and simile, using active voice, thoughtful word usage and phrasing. It can be easy to blithely ignore these tips when we’re struggling with our craft, when we’re exhausted and we just want to be done with our manuscripts. But in the end the care one takes in writing can make the difference between some words on a page and a mind-altering experience.

The good Doctor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein tagged me in a Facebook post about an article published by the New York Times discussing “Your Brain on Fiction,” by Annie Murphy Paul and I had to post it here for all of the wonderful writers who stop by, who have ever had doubts about the value of their work.

Murphy Paul’s article shares research supporting the idea that fiction makes a real impact on its reader’s brain. From a writer’s point of view, the brain’s reaction to fiction provides real insight into the science behind some of the advice with which we’re barraged. For instance, we’re advised to be mindful about metaphor, most importantly to avoid clichés. A research team in Spain published the results of their study on the brain’s reaction to metaphor.

…some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Utilizing the different senses in original ways drills our words beyond the eye into parts of the brain IRL smells, textures, tastes activate. Mindful and original metaphor is a boon and one of the most useful literary devices we have to turn our words into experiences.

In another study, scientists found that the motor cortex was stimulated by sentences relating actions.

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.

Writers strive to pull readers into their stories and take them on the adventure. When reading becomes an experience, a book becomes unforgettable–it lodges itself into our memories in the same way that that unexpected and exciting journey to a new country, that first encounter with a friend or lover, that illuminating therapy session implants itself into our minds.

Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

As writers, we’re doing more than just trying to get published, make a buck, and get famous (perhaps MOST writers). We’re trying to make an impact and to share something about the human experience. Personally, writing is my therapy and a novel is a place where I can be heard, where I can relieve myself of the sad stories weighing down my heart, or comfort myself with a happy ending. Channeling the contents of my mind and heart through the written word provides a sort of closure and makes the telling meaningful. It’s shared understanding through shared experience.

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely keeping this article in mind the next time I’m wallowing in lazy, ready to settle for weak and common content. I’ll remember that I’m not just writing; I’m lighting up cortices.

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