Your Brain as a Reader, and as a Writer

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I love what scientists are learning about our brains from fMRIs (functional magnetic imaging machines). A recent “New York Times” article entitled “Your Brain on Fiction” is all about what fMRI research has shown about reading fiction. The author, Annie Murphy Paul, tells us how and why the worlds of stories can feel truly alive. “Words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap, for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”

I remember being taught at Vermont College to consider including actions or sensations pertaining to each of the five senses in my stories. Include a smell, include a taste, include a sound. And don’t forget the other two if you can help it.

Now scientists are proving my advisors right.

Scientists are also researching the neural power of metaphors. As any creative writer knows, many figures of speech have become so common as to have lost any metaphorical richness. Instead, they survive as mere terms. On the other hand, according to Murphy, an explicitly textural (and surprising) metaphor, such as “‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex.”

Again, I feel my advisors smiling.

Further, descriptions of the motor activity of fictional characters stimulates the motor cortex of a reader’s brain.

Most interesting of all to me, and surely also obvious to any reader of fiction, is that the brain seems not to distinguish much between reading about an experience and experiencing it in real life. According to Murphy, “In each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” One researcher contends that this is because “reading produces a vivid simulation of reality.” Fiction, perhaps because its explicit aim is to create such a simulation, offers “an especially rich replica” by comparison to other reading genres.

In fact, fiction can go further than real life, allowing us to become other people or to travel to places we’ll never go, including the past and the future and places that simply don’t exist. Nevertheless, it can all feel absolutely believable and true.

Other research suggests that the same parts of the brain that are involved in trying to understand stories are also enlisted in making sense of interactions with real people. Stories can “‘help us understand the complexities of social life,’” offers one researcher. Children who are read to a lot as pre-schoolers have a keener sense of others’ intentions than children who are not.

All this research can help writers understand their audiences (as well as understand themselves as readers). But scientists are also using fMRIs and other new technologies to understand the creative process, including writing. Jonah Lehrer has just published a book on the subject called “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” which I recommend to anyone who makes art of any kind. He reports on what scientists have learned about the role of struggle in the creative process, on the necessity of being stumped before moving on to a solution, on why sometimes careful and laborious analysis fails – and then an answer comes out of nowhere.

For me, “Imagine” is a relief. It’s a relief to learn from scientific research that I’m a normal creative person. It’s normal never to be satisfied with my writing or my art – at least not until long after others think the problem has been solved. It’s normal to fail over and over until you wonder if you’re any good at all. It’s normal for a creative person to choose a life of making art even though it’s sometimes depressing, and it’s normal for depression to be a part of your toolkit because, oddly, depression can actually keep you from giving up.

And it’s normal to be willing to deal with all of those things if they’re the price of creating for readers (and, in my case, also viewers) experiences that rival real life. That, for me, makes everything worth it.

The “New York Times” article is “Your Brain on Fiction.”
Jonah Lehrer’s book is “Imagine: How Creativity Works.”