The (Neuro) Science of Good Writing

When you make an effort to use strongly evocative words in your narrative you are not just creating a richly textured piece of writing, you are also stimulating the brains of your readers. We were interested to read in the March 17th New York Times that neuroscientists are finding that reading not only activates the areas of the brain that are involved in interpreting written words, it also stimulates other areas as well.

For instance, Spanish researchers (NeuroImage, 2006) found that when people read words with strong odor associations, like “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortexes lit up. When study participants read words like “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark.

The article cites a French study that showed the same thing to be true of movement. Lines like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball” stimulated activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. And last month a team of researchers from Emory University weighed in regarding texture:

“(They) reported in ‘Brain & Language’ that when 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 NYT article, which is about reading fiction, goes on to say that the brain does not make much of a distinction between reading about something and experiencing it in real life.

We are interested in the article’s implications for writing. It would seem to make an argument for richer, evocative wording. Lighting up all those parts of the reader’s brain is probably a good way to get them hooked on your narrative.