June 30, 2015

Read it; feel it

Your brain on description

Read the words coffee, camphor or eucalyptus, and the part of your brain most closely related to the sense of smell responds. Read the words bingo, button or bayonette, and they don’t.

BRAIN FOOD Good writing makes your brain think your body's touching, smelling, acting — even engaging in a relationship.

The words you choose not only have the power to change your readers’ minds. They can also change their brains, according to new neurological research.

“Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters,” reports Annie Murphy Paul in “Your Brain on Fiction” for The New York Times. “Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”

Paul reports on new studies that show how words make us smell scents, feel textures, experience action — even understand others better.

The nose knows.

In 2006, for instance, researchers in Spain used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to scan participants’ brains.

Then they asked participants to read words describing odors — rancid, resin and oregano, for instance — as well as scent-neutral words, like circle, short and sketch.

When participants read the words describing odors, their primary olfactory cortex — the part of the brain most closely associated with the sense of smell — lit up. When they read the neutral words, this region remained dark.

Bottom line: Readers have a physical response to sensual description.

Want to make your readers’ brains light up? Use descriptive language.

Smell what I say

These words fired up the olfactory regions of the brain ...

… while these did not.

Virtual reality

Bottom line?

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” Paul writes. “In each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and a published novelist, agrees.

Reading, he told Paul, is a reality simulator that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

For writers, that means that the words you choose aren’t just words. They can also be things, experiences — even emotions. Choose them well.


Sources: Annie Murphy Paul, “Your Brain on Fiction,” The New York Times, March 17, 2012

Julio González, Alfonso Barros-Loscertales, Friedemann Pulvermuller, Vanessa Meseguer, Ana Sanjuán, Vicente Belloch, and Cesar Avila, “Reading ‘cinnamon’ activates olfactory brain regions,” NeuroImage, May 2006

Simon Lacey, Randall Stilla and K. Sathian, “Metaphorically feeling: Comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex,” Brain & Language, Vol. 120, Issue 3, March 2012, pp. 416–421

Véronique Boulenger, Beata Y. Silber, Alice C. Roy, Yves Paulignan, Marc Jeannerod and Tatjana A. Nazir, “Subliminal display of action words interferes with motor planning: A combined EEG and kinematic study,” Journal of Physiology-Paris, Vol. 102, Issues 1–3, January-May 2008, pp. 130-136

Raymond A. Mar, “The Neural Bases of Social Cognition and Story Comprehension,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 3, 2011, pp. 103-134

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