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

Nonfiction Mistakes I’ve Made – And Ways to Avoid Them

This week The Tollbooth welcomes guest blogger, Nina Kidd. A Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA grad, Nina has mined her passion for the outdoors by writing MG non-fiction about wildlife corridors helping cougars in the Santa Monica mountains.


As Nina says, my first mistake was ignoring nonfiction.

“Everyone” in grad school was writing fiction. As an illustrator, my favorite projects were realistic plants, animals, landscapes. Duh! I had spent years writing and illustrating nonfiction, and hadn’t even noticed. Don’t be me.

What articles do you hunt on the web? what was your favorite reading/viewing as a child? What are your guilty reading indulgences now? Reading passion=writing passion.


My second mistake was researching too long. You know you’re a nonfiction freak if that is among your problems. Two strategies helped me tame the research addiction:

Outlining. Right away. It’s freeing to cut away all the non-story to focus on that one narrative and central theme. Revise the outline, play with it, focus it. The book proposal must have one, so I feel fine lavishing time and care on the outline. And, yes, outlines are supposed to evolve.

Begin to write –soon—before the research is done. Alexis O’Neill, who writes fiction as well as nonfiction, reminded me recently, if  a fact or date comes along that needs looking up, Don’t! Leave a space for it (____) and keep writing. Getting a draft down helps focus the themes and sharpen the outline. Of course, that’s where we’re all heading anyway: to a draft

Don’t forget fiction. Structurally, fiction and nonfiction share the goal of telling a good story. How?

Sid Fleischman reminded us all to “write in scenes.” The narrative nonfiction that editors prize is a story, basically a series of scenes and transitions. It’s easy to let transitions take over in nonfiction, especially if there is no live person to tell the story. But without fabricating anything we can still create a scene with action, tension and emotion. I’ll bet you that when people read your work, their favorite parts will be the scenes.


Sensory details. Use the magic of specific sights, sounds, skin sensations. Jennifer Armstrong’s Orbis Pictus Award-winner, Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World will dazzle you and make you shiver as you sail with Ernest Shackleton’s crew into the Antarctic ice. Factoid: scientists say that the name or suggestion of a familiar smell is the most vivid and memory-evoking sense for a reader. That’s probably why cookbooks are so popular. Of course kids love the stinky ones too.

Narrative arc. This is where you can really hold the nonfiction reader, with tension building to a climax. Something as basic as cliffhanger chapter endings can work in nonfiction to lure the reader into reading your true tale cover to cover rather than just researching for the paper the teacher has required.

Tone can make even a scary-complicated subject more accessible. Do you see humor in nature? Are the characters in your story playful, prayerful? How about wonder? Is your topic lushly visual? Is there music in the spheres? Maybe, you’ll get to quote a wildlife biologist like the one I’ve been researching, who burst out that a life of discovery is “cool,” that climbing around outdoors is “a gas.” You can pass that unexpected grin along.

I Failed at all-important Filing. But if you are a fellow filophobe, the following may offer encouragement.

Make and label the files before generating the contents, for virtual as well as physical files. Following your outline, item by item, is a good way to arrange your files. For those of us who never liked putting the toys away, having a place pre-planned to put it encourages filing the work with the comforting promise you will find it again when needed.


Color code. When I’m working on more than one project, it helps to know that all the folders tabbed with a green hiliter go in Drawer #2. Alphabetize files by bolded keyword if necessary.

Photos: It helps to name them starting with date taken (or received). You can sort/retrieve “2012_11_28 Sweet Gum Red”  by year, month and day, species name, and/or color. This is a photo tip from bird photographer Doug Wechsler, director of VIREO, which has the world’s most comprehensive collection of bird photos.

Footnote as you go. It’s a temptation to leave it for later, but Kerry Madden (author of fiction, and nonfiction) shared that mistake, which she made when writing her 2009 biography of  Harper Lee. At the end, Kerry confessed, she sat with her editor for hours looking for the source notes she needed.

Good Feedback: One mistake I didn’t make was leaving my adored fiction critiquers when I was fortunate enough to find a wonderful nonfiction critique group. The two are complementary, with a nice overlap, if you can do it.

Happy (nonfiction) Writing!

Thanks, Nina!

Nina’s article “The Cougar Connection: Mountain Lions Lead the Way to Conservation Solutions” will be posted on the website of The Mountain Lion Foundation in the next few weeks. Currently, she is researching and writing two nonfiction books for middle grades. One tells the story of scientists working to save mountain lions struggling to survive in suburban Southern California, the other is a biography of Dr. Paul Beier, an American wildlife ecologist known internationally for his work on wildlife corridors, a conservation strategy to help humans and wild communities thrive side by side.

Story Sense: Creating Narrative Non-Fiction

New Non-fiction



Gretchen’s March 28 Tollbooth post on the way we respond to words, metaphor and experience struck me as particularly appropriate to what’s on my mind this week, creating voice in narrative non-fiction. Voice depends on reader empathy in non-fiction as much as it does in fiction. It’s one of the first things editors look for, and just as with fiction, it’s crafted through story and sensory detail.


Consider the following, is it fiction, or non-fiction?

“Your name is Solomon Perel. You’re a short, skinny, sixteen-year-old Jew, and you’ve just been captured by the Nazis. It’s all you can do not to piss on yourself.

They’ve nabbed you and a bunch of other refugees, just a few days into Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Now they’ve lined you all up in a field as they decide what do with each of you.

Most of you are Jewish—that’s why you were on the run in the first place—so the Nazis don’t have to think too hard about it. They take groups of refugees ahead of you off into the woods. From the forest come the sounds of shovels and machine guns, shovels and machine guns.”   


How about this?

“Polio came down on a lot of kids that summer. It shriveled the leg of one girl in our congregation and deformed the arm of a little boy. The doctor knew what it was a soon as he saw Delphine. He sent her to St. Jude Hospital and put her in an iron lung to help her breathe. She couldn’t move. All she could do was whisper through her breath, that’s what my momma said. I used to go in the car with them to visit, but Mom and Q.P. made me wait outside the hospital. They didn’t want me to get sick, too, and they didn’t want me to see Delphine like that. Once I tried to slip inside to see my sister, but a nurse caught me and led me back out screaming. I never saw Delphine alive again after the day she left our house to go see the doctor. The next time I saw her she was dead.”


Or this?

“On Thursday morning, May 2, 1963, nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks woke up with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, there was something important she had to do.

‘I want to go to jail,’ Audrey told her mother.

Since Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks thought that was a good idea, they helped her get ready. Her father had even bought her a new game she’d been eyeing. Audrey imagined that it would entertain her if she got bored during her week on a cell block.”


Each of the above passages are from non-fiction narratives.

The first quote is from a vignette in Chris Barton’s new nonfiction book for young people, Can I See Your ID? about people who made their mark, for whatever reason, by misleading folks.

The second, from Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice, is a story about a little known civil rights figure who stood up for herself by refusing to give up her seat on a bus before Rosa Parks made her mark, and thus affected the course of American history. 

And finally, the last quote from We’ve Got a Job To Do, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson, is the story of how Birmingham’s black youth answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call to “fill the jails: of their city,” as the book notes. “And in doing so, how they drew national attention to the cause and helped bring about the repeal of segregation laws.”

What these narratives have in common is a particular voice crafted by story and sensory detail. That’s easy to spot as a reader because you know it when you see it. But how do you get it in your writing? For Barton and Levinson, it was finding the right approach to their research.


 Can I See Your ID?

Chris Barton wrote Can I See Your ID? entirely in second person. After researching risk taking characters through history who posed as someone they weren’t, he “had stacks of research… but not a single word written down. I hadn’t yet come up with a voice.” At first, he merely played around with second person to experience what his characters were experiencing. He liked the effects. “But ‘you’?” he thought. “A whole book addressed to ‘you’?” Yet once he caught that voice, he couldn’t let it go.

Writing in second person though, made it especially challenging to create distinct voices that let readers experience events through an individual character’s eyes. Much of getting it right had to do with sensory detail and scene setting.

“I collected a lot of information about these people’s lives,” he notes, “And about the times and places where these scenes occur. Sometimes, I just got extremely lucky, such as finding a book that provided the daily temperatures during the Civil War for the particular place I needed… to make the scene seem real.”

It worked. Reading Barton’s blend of action, character conflict, and historical detail you can’t imagine this book any other way, because the technique puts you masterfully, smack dab in each character’s shoes.


We’ve Got a Job To Do

In contrast, the voice in Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job To Do, the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March is, as agent Erin Murphy puts it, “Notable for its invisibility. For the most part, what Cynthia Levinson achieves is putting the viewpoints of her four profiled participants at the forefront, letting them and their experiences speak for themselves.” And it’s these experiences that give young readers a unique window into the Civil Rights Movement.

To achieve this, Levinson relied on her own brand of sensory details such as “listening to music and sermons. I wrote Chapter Five,” she says, “which is on the role of mass meetings and religion in the civil rights movement, while listening to gospel, movement songs, and early-60s black rock music.”

She also unearthed recordings of sermons given at mass meetings by Reverend Ralph Abernathy and by Dr. King (including one in which he rehearsed what became the “I have a dream,” speech he delivered four months later at the March on Washington).

“I continued listening to them while revising that chapter,” Levinson adds. “My interviews and other primary sources, such as reports by white policemen who spied on the meetings were also essential. But, it was by being infused with the hallelujah fervor of the songs and sermons that I could write scenes such as the following:

A mass meeting rolled worship services, social visits, teen hangouts, choir concerts, sing-alongs, fish fries, strategy sessions, political debates, news reports, educational assemblies, fundraisers, crowd-rousers, and calls for volunteers all into one spiritual and spirited extravaganza.”


Next: the 1906 earthquake, Catherine the Great, and a storyteller’s guide to writing your own narrative non-fiction story.     –zv