As I write this, heavy, wet flakes fall from a sullen sky outside the frosted panes of my studio window. A faint whiff of wood smoke, a heady combination of charred birch bark, sweet cedar, and pungent pine creeps under my closed door, escaped as Janet, bundled like an Inuit walrus hunter, condensation rising from her parka like steam escaping a New York subway vent, throws another log into the wood stove glowing candy apple red in the room beyond.
Author Waid Woodruff sent me a fascinating link today, an article in the New York Times by Annie Murphy Paul titled Your Brain on Fiction. Turns out some things I’ve always suspected to be true about writing and reading are… true.
Paul points out that brain scans have begun to reveal what happens upstairs when we crack open a novel and encounter a colorful metaphor, or come upon a lively exchange between fictional characters.
Researchers and the brainier among you have long been aware of the brain’s language areas (regions known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s), and their role in determining how we interpret written words. Recent work however indicates that narrative actually activates other parts of our brains, too, which explains why we experience a well-written passage as something akin to “real life.” For example, Paul points out that “words like ‘lavender,’ ‘cinnamon,’ and ‘soap,’ elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”
The implications for writers are obvious. I’ve been urging authors for years to pay more attention to all the senses in their writing. Don’t simply tell us “it was a hot day in July.” Tell us what the day smelled like, how the sun felt on the characters’ skin, what sounds cut through the shimmering clouds of heat. To the extent an author does this, his/her readers are going to experience the narrative on multiple levels.
And that is a good thing.
Paul cites a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, in which Spanish researchers “asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean ‘chair’ and ‘key,’ this region remained dark.”
This brain effect apparently extends to one of my personal favorites, the metaphor, as well. Here Paul reports that a team from Emory University recently published a study in Brain & Language, in which “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.
The brain: every writer's best friend. Evocative language: every brain's best buddy
Perhaps most excitingly, it seems our brains make little distinction between reading about something and actually experiencing it — in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. A fact which underscores the tremendous power every author wields when writing a passage. Use your powers wisely, grasshopper!
Speaking of power, Paul concludes her piece by citing two studies that seem to indicate that people who read fiction are better at understanding others, are more empathetic, and are better able to see the world as others view it.
Obviously we should force anyone running for public office to read fiction on a daily basis. Running for city council? Read Kafka short stories, or go away. Running for president? Read Tolstoy, or go home.
So for those of you reading this who are writers, take heart: you are very, very important people. The world would, quite literally, be a far less colorful, moving, funny, inspiring place without you.
Bu then one doesn’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that.