What can brain scans say about creative writers?

The study mentioned below, profiled at BPS Research (one of my favorite places to find research about writing and the brain) is interesting. But it really doesn’t tell us much more than one should work hard to become “an accomplished writer.” Still, assuming this neuroscience holds up under further review, it may come to represent scientific proof that practice makes perfect.

Maybe such proof seems about as important as proving that water is wet. But you might be surprised how many people take it for granted that playing the cello at a world class level requires lots of practice — and remaining a world class cellist requires even more practice — yet they don’t automatically apply the same notion of “practice” to becoming a world class writer.

“When an accomplished creative writer gets on with their craft, their brain operates in a somewhat different way to a novice’s. A new imaging study suggests that the expert approach may be more streamlined, emotionally literate, and initially unfiltered.”

via BPS Research Digest: Can a brain scan tell us anything about the art of creative writing?.

Writing Is Failure

This isn’t really science, but it should be. Ta-Nahesi Coates expresses what so many (maybe most?) story makers experience. Mr. Coates is (IMHO) one of the best writers working the essay narrative today, and if it is this hard for him to write, it makes me feel a little better too.

Science Proves We Go In Circles

The video below can be found at NPR.org, (3 min, 34 sec).

Humans innately go in circles when the horizon — the simplest form of context — is removed from our toolbox of perceptions. Is the circle a default protection mechanism? An adaptive trait that, as cavemen, saved us from disappearing into the wilderness when we inevitably got lost? And what implications does this have for narrative artists: how can we take advantage of it?

It seems to me that storytellers — playwrights, novelists, epic poets, etc — have intuitively known about this tendency for millennia. It is literally a trope employed in many stories: the characters, lost in the dark, walk in circles (think Scooby Doo). Aside from literal characters lost in the landscape, circle plots aren’t rare; many plots circle back to where they began, or execute an upward spiral (a form of circle, natch) that returns to where we began, but with new context. The good ol’ “rule of three” could be seen as a series of loops wherein the story returns to an idea a couple of times, each time adding something new. No doubt there are dozens of ways we could apply this understanding as narrative engineers persuading audiences to navigate our stories.

Autumn of the Jackass – NYTimes.com

“ ‘Jackass’ was really easy. I know stuff happened, and there’s hospital visits, but it’s not as bad as trying to figure out a story.”

via Autumn of the Jackass – NYTimes.com.

An interesting comment, and an astute one, from Johnny Knoxville who created the “Jackass” empire. I’d write a longer post on this but I think the takeaway is obvious: making good stories is often harder and more painful than getting repeatedly kicked in the groin.

Stupid Pet Tricks Can Be Smart

bean-photoScientists finally proved it: puppies and kids get more empathy than adults…! (Cue “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and let Strauss’ bombast wash over you.)

But stay with me here. An important implication for narrative craft hides inside this patently obvious “discovery.”

Some science seems like simple, common sense. It is so obvious that we don’t even think of it as science. For instance, when that sledgehammer slips from your hand it will fall toward the earth and smash your big toe so flat that it’ll be nigh impossible to pry off your flip-flop. That’s the science of gravity. Or, if you step on a rake just right, the handle will spring up and smack you in the face, blinding you momentarily so that you’re sure to step on all the other rakes inexplicably strewn across the yard. That’s the science of leverage (plus the science of cartoons)… My point is this: obvious science is not bad science just because it is obvious. In many cases it may be the most important science you can use precisely because it is always there, and therefore in your power to capitalize on it.

So, how does the science of puppies and kids being cute help you as a narrative artist? Let’s start with what the research actually tells us:

“The fact that adult human crime victims receive less empathy than do child, puppy, and full grown dog victims suggests that adult dogs are regarded as dependent and vulnerable not unlike their younger canine counterparts and kids.” via ScienceDaily.com

If that sentence is a bit convoluted for you (as it is to me) you can read the short article at the link above, or take my word for it: what the study reveals is that, in the abstract, we have more empathy for children and dogs suffering abuse than we do for adult, human victims of abuse. The operative notion here is that our culture views children and dogs as generally “vulnerable and dependent.” Another way of saying the same thing would be: children and dogs do not have the informed agency to make good decisions concerning their safety. Therefore, dogs and children should never deserve abuse. Adults, the study suggests, are held to a higher standard; adults are more likely to be held accountable for the decisions they’ve made — even when we have no idea what those decisions were — that led them to being abused or beaten.

Setting aside the implications of “blame the victim” psychology for another day, for narrative artists the most basic ramification to this research is pretty straightforward: if you want your audience’s empathy and attention, place a child or dog at risk. Do that, and you’ll get people to empathize with little effort. You can see this practice in action during every hour of primetime television on every night of the week. Police procedurals tend to specialize in this technique, and it is very little different when Simon Cowell dresses down a naive high school folk singer.

However, we need not use this information so blatantly in order to capitalize on the underlying theory at work here; we need not grab the low hanging fruit and constantly spotlight crimes against the most vulnerable among us. Assuming you don’t want to write about dogs and children in distress, we can instead focus on the underlying implication of the science and translate one level up from the literal vulnerability exemplified by dogs and kids. In the research quoted above, scientists assert that in our cultural narrative — what we generally agree to be the truths of our society — adult humans are perceived as less vulnerable and therefore automatically garner less empathy. But this is true only in the abstract, when a scientist asks you — apropos of nothing, and with little context — if you’d feel worse for a dog that takes a beating or a fully grown adult who’s being beaten. Most people feel for the dog over the human. Yet, with sufficient context the reverse can be true: an adult can be found to be extremely vulnerable if his agency is abridged, and an abstract dog can morph into a specific monster seemingly teeming with agency. (For evidence supporting this argument, and for fun, see the Cujo trailer here.) Perceived vulnerability through loss or modification of agency is the pivotal tool at issue, more so than simply putting cuteness in the crosshairs and relying on the cultural narrative to earn your audience’s eyes. In many story situations, it is the duty of the plot to exemplify and specify the vulnerability of a character so that an audience begins to empathize. And a fundamental way to dramatize vulnerability in an adult character is to modify agency.

For an example of loss of agency as an effective tool to earn empathy and attention, look at Lear. King Lear does it to himself: he makes the decision to give away his agency — his power — over his kingdom. The Lear we see in the first part of the play is not a guy we can feel very much empathy toward. His pride is ugly to behold. However, once his agency is surrendered and he begins to realize that he has no power left to affect the outcome of the kingdom, or even his own fate, we start to empathize with him. A king like Lear is nothing like a puppy or a child. At rise he is a fully capable adult inhabiting one of the most powerful societal and political roles one can imagine. And still we empathize with him as the story unfolds because he is increasingly at the mercy of the world around him, unable to protect himself, and unable to make decisions that will extricate him from the hole he’s intentionally stepped into. (Yes, Shakespeare’s King Lear is more nuanced than the way I’ve just described it, and I am intentionally glossing it to make a point.)

Lear is an extreme example of loss of agency. A narrative need not focus on a single, giant reduction of agency such as Lear’s in order to earn an audience’s empathy. Ken Kesey’s novel Sometimes a Great Notion chronicles the story of Hank Stamper, the leader of a family logging clan in Oregon. Throughout that narrative we see Hank lose agency one little piece at a time because of his beliefs; he loses a friend here, and a contract there; his brother turns against him; the town turns against him; the union turns against him; his wife is alienated from him; his father is literally torn in half, and his best friend dies trying to help him as Hank continues to fight for the agency to do what he thinks is best. Each loss, by itself, removes a small piece of agency — removing possible escape routes from a dire fate — until Hank is alone with a final monumental task that threatens his life. And yet Hank takes on the final task anyway, unwilling to yield his agency, even when it comes down to a final decision between literally dying while trying, or living under the yoke of another’s decision making.

Aside from those two striking examples, often agency is not the central idea of the story, and possibly not even key to the story. But as a plot tool, modifying a character’s agency by narrowing the field of his or her choices can earn the audience’s empathy at any given point in a narrative. Reducing a character’s agency can even make us empathize when a character is not otherwise very appealing, as more than one recent cable TV series has shown. Your story doesn’t have to focus on a child darting out in front of a speeding truck in order to make the science of cute dogs and kids work for you. Instead, simply put the focus on the truck driver and take away her agency to do anything other than hit the kid or hurtle off a cliff to her death. Now you have an adult character we can empathize with no matter which dark choice she makes.

Everybody’s Favorite Topic: Themselves

KeenInSuitHow much do your characters talk about themselves?

Recent scientific research suggests that in everyday life we talk about ourselves a lot:

“If you’re like most people, your own thoughts and experiences may be your favorite topic of conversation.  On average, people spend 60 percent of conversations talking about themselves—and this figure jumps to 80 percent when communicating via social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook.” Read the full text at: The Neuroscience of Everybody’s Favorite Topic: Scientific American.

Just because current science says we talk about ourselves around sixty percent of the time doesn’t mean we absolutely need to check our manuscripts to see that our characters match that standard. It might help the storytelling be more “realistic” if we do so, but “realistic” is not really an aesthetic standard so much as a concept to be balanced among a large number of factors in a given narrative. Science-says need not be Simon-says.

However, tracking self-referential dialogue can be an interesting notion to play with, especially in story that is dialogue-driven. It is potentially useful to go through your play script, for example, and label each line of dialogue as 1) self-referential, 2) neutral or n/a, and 3) reflective of external concerns or others. From this data, one could build a simple chart and determine approximately how much of a character’s expression is about himself and how much is referring to people/things/ideas outside himself. Using 60 percent as a standard baseline, we have a benchmark to see if characters are behaving naturally, at least according to the study cited above. Finding that one of your characters talks about himself far above or below the average might reveal something you hadn’t consciously crafted into the character. Either an overabundance or a paucity of self-referential dialogue might be reinforcing the actions a character is taking, or might be undermining them, both of which can be interesting choices, but generate divergent audience responses.

This kind charting as a tool is, to some degree, subjective to the author’s intent behind the individual lines. And it is tempered by an author’s control in generating subtext that obviates the surface expressions of the lines; any given snippet of dialogue may seem outwardly directed but actually intended to have a subtext that is self-referencing, or conversely, seem selfish but actually meant to be selfless. To be as accurate as possible, generating a chart of a character’s self-referential dialogue should track what a character means — what an author intends, and the meanings she is capably placing underneath the character’s words — more so than the literal surface of what a character says. Plus, as a further caveat, even if a character talks about himself only 15% of the time, it is not an ironclad guarantee he is less self-centered. Actions not reflected whatsoever in a given character’s dialogue can outweigh everything a character says, of course. Even so, while it is apparent that there is a deal of latitude for interpretation in tracking how self-centered any character’s dialogue is, charting how often a character talks about himself is potentially a valuable tool.