Neuroscience has some good news for both readers and writers of fiction – really! “Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy appeared in 2012, but I wasn’t aware of the article until recently.
“Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.”
Why is this significant? In the age of gaming and constant visual stimulation and entertainment, it seems the old standby of reading has more value than we thought (yes, even eBooks!). Did you ever wonder why you enjoy reading? This article goes on to explain what it is about fiction which activates the brain and brings pleasure. Authors take note – this research has direct bearing on story creation and character development!
To be honest, I am still trying to fully integrate the use of all five senses in my writing and have made some progress. On the surface, it is understood that doing so makes a better story and promotes the “show vs. tell” concept writers are continuously reminded to use. Now, research lends credence to what the writing gurus have been saying.
- Science provides concrete evidence that the use of descriptive terms with strong odor associations, for example, such as cinnamon, lavender, and coffee, light up the olfactory cortex.
- A similar brain response was noted in the sensory cortex in phrases involving texture, such as “The singer had a velvety voice” or “He had leathery hands”.
- Sentences which describe motion like “John grasped the object” or “Pablo kicked the ball”, activated regions of the motor cortex.
Apparently, the brain makes little distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life, since in each case the same neurological regions are stimulated. Fiction actually goes above and beyond, providing a replica of reality by allowing readers to experience their characters thoughts and feelings. Even more intriguing, the brain tends to treat the interactions among fictional characters something like real-life social encounters, improving empathy and social skills.
“Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”
For fiction writers, this research provides powerful encouragement and motivation. We must craft our stories with care, paying special attention to word choices and descriptions which engage all the senses, thereby transporting readers directly into the narrative. They crave it, demand it even, and we have the ability to give it to them. Our work then becomes more than mere entertainment but an exercise in brain stimulation and improved social interactions.
In the process, we create loyal fans who will not only enjoy our work but who will spread the word to others looking for a great piece of fiction. Think about that the next time you prepare to write!