September 25, 2017

Your brain on description

To the sensory cortex, reading is the same as doing

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.

Get in touch with your readers

Get in touch with your readers Good writing makes your brain think your body is touching, smelling, moving. Image by Dr. Wendy Longo

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.

1. The nose knows.

In 2006, 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.

2. Feel the burn.

Three researchers at Emory University used fMRI scans on subjects who read phrases involving texture.

When the subjects read textural metaphors — Life is a bumpy road, for instance, or He is a smooth talker — the sensory cortex, which is responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. When they read neutral phrases with the same meaning — Life is a challenging road or He is persuasive — the sensory cortex remained dark.

Look and feel

These texture metaphors lit up the sensory cortex …               … While these literal phrases did not
She drove a hard bargainShe drove a good bargain
That man is oilyThat man is untrustworthy
Life is a bumpy roadLife is a challenging road
He is a smooth talkerHe is persuasive
This steak is rubberyThis steak is overcooked
He had leathery handsHe had strong hands
She is a bit rough around the edgesShe is a bit impolite
He fluffed his linesHe forgot his lines
He is a smooth operatorHe is a suave guy
She has a bubbly personalityShe has a lively personality
The logic was fuzzyThe logic was vague
She gritted her teethShe ground her teeth
She decided to rough itShe decided to go without
She is sharp-wittedShe is quick-witted
It was a hairy situationIt was a precarious situation
This soda is flatThis soda lacks taste
The wind is sharpThe wind is cold
The operation went smoothlyThe operation went successfully
She has steel nervesShe is very calm
That book is full of fluffThat book is full of nonsense
His step was springyHis step was energized
She gave a slick performanceShe gave a stellar performance
The clouds were fleecyThe clouds were white
His voice was silkyHis voice was calm
His eyes went fuzzyHis eyes went blurry
The punch is spikedThe punch is alcoholic
She bristled with angerShe shouted with anger
He is wet behind the earsHe is a naïve person
He is on a slippery slopeHe is getting out of control
She is soft-heartedShe is kind-hearted
He is a greasy politicianHe is a corrupt politician
He has an uneven temperHe has an uncertain temper
His face was stonyHis face was stoic
He has a slimy personalityHe has a deceitful personality
The movie made her mushyThe movie made her cry
His manners are coarseHis manners are rude
She is a bit edgyShe is a bit nervous
He was a crusty old manHe was an irritable old man
She has a dry sense of humorShe has an odd sense of humor
She had a rough dayShe had a bad day
He is a softieHe is a pushover
The singer had a velvet voiceThe singer had a pleasing voice
He was a slippery customerHe was an awkward customer
His skin prickled with anticipationHis skin went cold with anticipation
She asked a pointed questionShe asked a relevant question
She has an abrasive personalityShe has an unpleasant personality
Her voice was scratchyHer voice was hoarse
The criticism was bluntThe criticism was straightforward
The book was mushyThe book was sentimental
He had a rugged faceHe had a manly face
It was a polished performanceIt was a flawless performance
Her voice was gratingHer voice was harsh
She looked sleekShe looked stylish
His voice was gravellyHis voice was low

3. And … action!

Cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France studied how people’s brains reacted to phrases conveying motion.

When subjects read action verbs like write and throw, their motor cortexes — the part of the brain that coordinates the body’s movements — lit up. When they read nouns like mill and cliff, their motor cortexes stayed dark.

Even more interesting, one part of the motor cortex lit up when subjects read about arm movement, while a different part did when they read about leg action.

4. In character

Just as the brain treats descriptions of physical sensations and action as if they were real, it also treats written interactions among people as if they were real social encounters.

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, analyzed 86 fMRI studies published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology. His conclusion: As we practice understanding people when we read, we become better at understanding them in reality.

Narratives, Paul writes, help us “identify with subjects’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”

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.

  • Paint Pictures In Your Readers’ Minds

    Think of description as virtual reality: Describe a scent, and your readers’ primary olfactory cortexes light up. Describe texture, and you activate their sensory cortexes. Describe kicking, and not only do you stimulate their motor cortexes, but you stimulate the part of the motor cortex responsible for leg action.

    But write abstractly — aka, the way we usually do in business communications — and readers’ brains remain dark.

    Want to stimulate some brain activity around, say, your CEO’s latest strategy or that brilliant Whatzit you’ll be releasing later this month? Description is the answer. But it’s not easy for those of us raised on the inverted pyramid and just the facts, Ma’am, to research for and write description.

    At New York creative writing workshopMaster the Art of the Storyteller — a two-day creative writing master class on Sept. 25-26 in New York — you’ll learn how to:

    • Dig up descriptive details: Try WBHA, the most overlooked reporting tool there is
    • Tune in to sensory information: Use our travel writer’s tip for going beyond visual description
    • Answer the scene-writer’s question: You can’t write good description without it
    • Take on The Popcorn Project: Practice our four-step process for writing vivid description
    • Communicate, don’t decorate: Use this tip to avoid stimulating readers’ gag reflexes instead of their cerebral cortexes

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Master the Art of Storytelling Workshop in New York.

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Make Your Copy More Creative workshop? Contact Ann directly.


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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    1. […] the sensory cortex in your brain, reading is the same as doing. The words you choose not only have the power to change your readers’ minds. They can also change […]

    2. […] know that descriptive words light up the brain. But do readers’ brains light up if they read metaphors? And what about […]

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