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.

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.

Power of Metaphor Is Being Mapped by Neurology

public-domain-medical-brain-pThe power of metaphor is being mapped by brain scientists…?

I first encountered neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky on Radio Lab, a podcast I follow closely to pick up tid-bits that apply to my field of practice. Upon learning about the guy, I went back and looked up anything I could find he’d written. (Well, I looked up anything he’d written for laymen, that is, since much of his academic writing is likely beyond me.) Below is something Sapolsky wrote for civilians, and it applies directly to the science underpinning narrative devices, such as metaphor. The whole article is a great read and worth the time for those interested in the physiological reasons for why metaphor is so powerful.

Snip:

Consider an animal (including a human) that has started eating some rotten, fetid, disgusting food. As a result, neurons in an area of the brain called the insula will activate. Gustatory disgust. Smell the same awful food, and the insula activates as well. Think about what might count as a disgusting food (say, taking a bite out of a struggling cockroach). Same thing.

Now read in the newspaper about a saintly old widow who had her home foreclosed by a sleazy mortgage company, her medical insurance canceled on flimsy grounds, and got a lousy, exploitative offer at the pawn shop where she tried to hock her kidney dialysis machine. You sit there thinking, those bastards, those people are scum, they’re worse than maggots, they make me want to puke … and your insula activates. Think about something shameful and rotten that you once did … same thing. Not only does the insula “do” sensory disgust; it does moral disgust as well. Because the two are so viscerally similar. When we evolved the capacity to be disgusted by moral failures, we didn’t evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio. [Bold emphasis is mine.]

Sapolsky’s entire essay can be found at This Is Your Brain on Metaphors – NYTimes.com.

Note: Although there is growing dissent and push-back in the scientific community concerning how the media has misrepresented recent advances in neurology by blowing them out of proportion, or taking them out of context, Sapolsky is one guy I tend to trust in this regard. The scientist, Sapolsky himself, is making arguments based on well regarded evidence from his own findings and the research of those he trusts. This information coming directly from him is not quite the same as some layman — me, or some journalist, or the evening news — making leaps or taking license that the research itself doesn’t support.