A number of years ago, a woman told me that one of my horror novels had made her cry. As a horror writer, I found this music to my ears.
Afterward, I started to think about what exactly had happened there. I typed up a bunch of words that popped into my head as complex ideas, they were printed as abstract symbols, her brain decoded them, and then she felt a visceral reaction.
We take this all for granted, but it’s pure magic.
But it also isn’t magic. Something happens between the writer and the reader.
What are the underlying mechanisms?
This started me on an exploratory journey—a meditation on what happens to our brains on reading and writing, and what insights we can glean from that.
In this first post, we tackle the reading brain.
Reading and the brain
At a basic level, reading involves decoding a string of abstract symbols and translating it into complex ideas. In reality, a whole lot more is going on.
Consider the sentence, “The baker had a kindly face.” Reading something basic like this, we are using the language processing parts of our brains. Notably Broca’s area, which enables production of speech, and Wernicke’s area, which enables comprehension.
Now consider this sentence: “The baker had an open jar of cinnamon under his nose.” A whole different brain area lights up—the primary olfactory cortex, which enables detection of odors. As if we were actually smelling it ourselves.
In a 2006 study conducted in Spain, researchers had subjects read words strongly associated with odors along with neutral words, and then conducted MRI scans of their brains. (These scans are very useful for neuroscientific research because they show relative blood flow in the brain. More blood means work is being done there.) The researchers found that when reading odor-associated words like “cinnamon” and “coffee” and “perfume,” the subjects’ primary olfactory cortex became stimulated.
Now read this: “The baker held the jar in his leathery hands.”
Our sensory cortex just engaged. This was discovered by research such as a 2012 study at Emory University, which found that sensory metaphors like “velvet voice” and “leathery hands” stimulated the sensory cortex—as if the readers were touching something themselves. Cliché figures of speech like “a rough day” and general descriptions like “a pleasing voice” did not.
It goes to show that evocative language awakens the reader’s senses, while clichés and non-evocative language does not.
Our story goes on: “Inspired by the baker, she jogged home and hammered out a first draft on her keyboard.” Reading this, of course, stimulates the motor cortex.
This was discovered in research such as a 2013 study at the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, which found the motor cortex became stimulated when subjects read a sentence describing a physical act, such as, “Pablo kicked the ball.” In fact, the brain activity was specific to parts of the cortex when motion was related to specific body parts.
So what does all this mean? 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.
“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonists,” said Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”
Theory of mind
Finally, read this: “After she was done writing, she looked around her empty house and felt alone and unloved. She knew what she had to do. She would…”
So, what does she do next?
Think about it.
Have an answer? Good. You just used a whole other part of your brain: the prefrontal cortex that enables cognition, personality, decisions, and social behavior; and the superior temporal sulcus, which enables multisensory processing. A whole lot is going on as networks in your brain used to navigate interactions with other people are put to work.
In 2011, Raymond Mar conducted a meta-analysis of 86 MRI studies and discovered a major overlap in the brain networks we use to understand stories and the networks we use to interact with other people. In particular, interactions where we try to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. This ability to conceive a map of other people’s intentions is called “theory of mind.”
Stories exercise this ability as we identify with characters’ feelings, figure out their motives, and track their intentions. Because of this, reading is not only enjoyable but also biologically adaptive.
“Fiction narratives supply us with a mental catalog of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcome of the strategies we could deploy in them,” wrote Harvard University’s Steven Pinker, author of How The Mind Works.
Besides this, there is evidence reading improves vocabulary, fosters empathy and emotional intelligence, is therapeutic, and changes minds. Combined with the experiences and wonder it offers, reading is simply one of the most enjoyable things humans can do.
Writing for readers
When I think about reading’s effect on the brain, I can’t help but recall one of my favorite quotes from Wonder Boys: “She read everything every spare moment. She was a junkie for the printed word. And lucky for me, I manufactured her drug of choice.”
How do we as writers stimulate the reader’s brain in just the right way? While the science of reading became far better understood just in the last one or two decades, interestingly, writers have known all along. In other words, the research reinforces the basic tenets of story.
Hook the reader’s attention by capitalizing on human interest in danger and surprise. Build a connection with the protagonist quickly to stimulate oxytocin, an empathy chemical in the brain. Challenge the protagonist with obstacles to achieving their goal. If your story has theme, connect the protagonist’s struggle and transformation to the broader world shared with the reader. Use language to produce as sensory and engaging an experience as possible. And take the time to learn craft until it’s internalized and becomes a toolset used as needed.
In a subsequent post, “This Is Your Brain on Writing,” we’ll take a look into the brain of the writer while they’re doing all this.