The Writer, The Reader, and Mirror Neurons

Imagine that you are hiking and you trip on a slick section of the trail, Cactus detail and a cactus spine pierces your palm—the sharp, focused pain spreads through the muscle and nerves, and the end catches inside your skin as you work to remove it.

Sometimes when one of my kids has had a shot, I flinch and the skin in my upper arm tingles, even though I’m not the one getting the shot.

Why and how do we have physical and emotional responses to what we see and what we read?

The answer may be mirror neurons.

Current theory states that the mirror neurons in our brain mirrors the actions, goals, intentions, thoughts, and emotions of another person’s actions, etc.

Our neurons fire in the same location in our brain when we move and when we observe the same movement by someone else. (Note: additional research shows that we do distinguish the difference between our own action versus someone else’s action.)  Neuroscientist, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, found that the brain shows the same activity with observing an action or reading words describing an action.

Perhaps mirror neurons are how readers can feel as if they have literally entered the story. “The discovery of mirror neurons explains why we respond to fictional characters as real even though we know they are not. It explains our emotional responses to scary movies or action movies even though we know ‘it’s just a movie,'” said Normal N. Holland, PhD.

Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, suggested that theater events “are more powerful than real life events.” This may be because we can “fully simulate them.” In essence we mirror more effectively because we feel safe, therefore “our emotional involvement may be greater.” (The Mirror Neuron Mechanism and Literary Studies: Interview with Vittorio Gallese)

One could theorize that stories and literature create greater emotional impact if we fully can connect with readers and directly access their brains (mirror neurons).

So what does this research mean to a writer?

  • Our writing needs to be specific and sensory filled.
  • Characters need to be well rounded and believable.
  • The plot needs to be well crafted and correctly paced.
  • The setting needs to be realistically described.

Good writing means readers’ mirror neurons will fire up and they will physically and emotionally experience the story along with the character. As they read, they will experience an illusion of reality.

Sarah Blake Johnson