The Neuroscience of Fiction

Here’s another interesting compilation of findings about what neuroscientists are seeing in the brain when we experience story. It’s worth the read, especially for how meta-analysis of fMRI studies has been confirming that our neurons fire in parallel ways: when chewing a raisin, or just reading about munching raisins, the same areas of the brain light up. And, as a nice, lemony glaze on this carrot cake of info, the author even goes so far as to remind us that we’re attracted to this neurological research because it confirms a bias we already have:

These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined. The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction – NYTimes.com

Williams and Cake

Tennessee Williams & cake; 20th anniversary of “The Glass Menagerie”

There’s nothing wrong with confirming a bias like this, right? I mean, lemon frosting is just the thing: a tang to cut the sweet, yet decadent enough to make me feel swell… Still, I guess there is one small question: if we assume the scientists are getting the science right — not an entirely safe assumption, actually, since correlation is not always causation — but if we assume the science is right, isn’t it just telling us story is important to humans? Don’t I already know this? Doesn’t everyone already know that story is important?

Well, some folks might argue, but not many. I can’t find anyone to argue about whether story is important; everyone seems to agree it is, many scientists now included. I can find people to argue about the neuroscience, but not the bias itself. Who is out there saying story or metaphor aren’t important to us as a species?

So, for the science of narrative, what does neurology really have to tell us? For our tribe (authors), crowing about research such as this might seem like an exercise in self-congratulation, assuming the research proves true. Sometimes, frankly, that’s what is going on. Sometimes we just want to be told we’re doing something valuable for the species. But that’s not always the case. In fact, from the same article I quote above comes the following little revelation that might be of tremendous, rubber-meets-the-road value to story engineers everywhere:

…a team of researchers from Emory University 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 Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction – NYTimes.com

Does that get your attention? (Or, should I say: does this velvet news prickle your leathery nape the way it does mine?) Again, assuming the science is correct, as narrative artists we are activating the brain more acutely when we use language that evokes texture or touch. It’s true that creative writing teachers have been saying things like this for a century or six, but now scientists are kinda sorta suggesting it too! Perhaps there’s still room to argue about whether activating these regions with sensation-centric language might be counterproductive to conveying certain ideas in certain contexts. And again, the proof is far from complete, or very deep.

Still, bias confirmed? Yep. Is it likely a good idea to employ sensory-conscious language in every story you tell, perhaps even in a blog post like this, where the only literal, physical reality is the slick glide of my thumb on a sleek glass touchpad, and the clack of square, black keys? You bet your lemon frosting it is… Now, where’s the neuroscience on the effect of mixing metaphors? That would be extremely valuable.