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.

In the Brain: Reading Is Separate from Writing

At some point, if you are someone who has gone through a training program for creative writing, you are likely to have been introduced to some form of “automatic writing” exercise. When I was in training, I usually felt molested by in-class writing exercises that were about “freeing the muse” or “tapping into the visceral” as opposed to concrete exercises that explicitly demonstrated the mechanics or tactics of narrative craft. Automatic writing exercises never worked for me. More than once I was forced to sit and listen to Mozart and/or Van Morrison and/or Van Halen, or stare at a Picasso nude, and then told to write whatever comes out of my pen without controlling it. And furthermore, I was told the resultant mishmash might have real 24 carat gold hidden there… Yet nothing but pyrite or coprolites has ever appeared in my automatic writing, unfortunately. However, my own experience is simply anecdotal — not a very good way to judge the possibilities or mechanisms in the writer’s brain that might be at work in automatic writing. I know some (reasonable) people who find automatic writing-esque exercises (see this wiki, which gets the underlying theory mostly right) to be aces.

Don’t misunderstand: as a playwright, poet and fiction writer, I’m not without my own mysterious processes. I do have characters sometimes talk to me out of the blue, and I do sometimes sit down and let them talk on the page with no pre-ordained idea of plot or story. But this is not the same as automatic writing. At least, I don’t think it is, and it doesn’t match the definitions one can find for automatic writing.

So that’s my prejudice: I’m a skeptic when it comes to automatic writing, but willing to allow there might be something to it even if I cannot experience it myself. Then, a few months ago I stumbled onto this video above (courtesy of NPR.org, 3 min, 5 sec) and asked myself: have I been missing something? If a man can lose his ability to read, but still have the ability to write — if the processes are that separate in the brain — perhaps there is something to it? It’s possible I’m conflating automatic writing with brain injury in an inappropriate way: tell me off in the comments, if you think so. But when you watch the video, ask yourself this: might your hand (or the part of the brain that moves it, really) know something you don’t? Yes, the example in the video is about a writer who lost his reading ability, but he still knew his plot; he’s not really doing a version of automatic writing as typically defined. But still: the hand knows… What else might the hand know? Can I be taught to talk to the hand?

The Writer Who Couldn’t Read from NPR on Vimeo.