How Brain Science Can Improve Your Writing

How Brain Science Can Improve Your Writing

It’s happened to all of us. We pick up a book and decide to read for a few minutes. It’s pretty good, so we read just a little longer. And then a little more ... hours later, the streetlights are on, everyone’s gone to bed, but we’re still up. Reading. What happened? Why do some books grab us by the hair and drag us into their world, almost against our will?

While there’s no step-by-step formula for writing bedtime-thwarting prose of your own, there are techniques that can greatly increase the chance your readers will hang around to see what happens next.

You got me in the feels

We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but, in fact, the decisions we make - including whether or not to keep reading a book - are emotional. As expert negotiator Jim Camp points out in a Big Think article, “Decision-making isn’t logical, it’s emotional, according to the latest findings in neuroscience.”

This is important information for writers because it gives us a clue about how we can engage our readers. If humans are wired to resonate emotionally, then we’d better make sure our writing is influencing the heart as well as the mind. But first we need to get clear about which emotions we want to evoke.

Just as a songwriter decides what kind of song they want to write before they put the notes down (happy, sad, fast, slow) so, too, a writer can plan what kind of emotional notes they want the writing to hit.

Of course, knowing what you’d like to achieve and knowing how to do it are two different things. Lucky for us there are principles and techniques we can use to increase the likelihood that readers will experience the emotions we’re aiming for. And as it turns out, neuroscience has a lot to teach us.

Breaking down the science

The human brain is made of many different structures, each performing different functions. The part of our brain we associate with “higher” thinking - like math and language - is called the cerebral cortex. Located at the outer layer of the brain, the cerebral cortex is often referred to as the “executive” part of our brain (especially the region called the prefrontal cortex). In evolutionary terms, this is the newest part of our brain and is the seat of what we normally call “consciousness.”

However, even though we like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who make decisions based on objective facts, it’s not actually our cerebral cortex that makes decisions. That job is handled by a much older and deeper part of our noggin called the limbic system. Sometimes referred to as “the reptilian brain”, the limbic system is where emotions are generated and it’s 200 times faster at processing information than our conscious mind.   

Just imagine: You’re seated comfortably in your favourite chair, engrossed in a FriesenPress book when someone tiptoes up behind you and yells, “BLAAGOOZEY!” in your ear. Before you can make a rational decision about how to react, your limbic system already has you spun around and up on your feet.

That’s an extreme example, but, in fact, your limbic system is constantly reacting. Mostly it wants to know if something is likely to be pleasurable or threatening and makes decisions based on sense information: taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell.

But the limbic brain does not use words.

Think about that. Language doesn’t affect how we make decisions. Gosh, that’s bad news for writers, hey? Well, actually no. Words themselves might not engage our emotions or affect our decisions, but the images they evoke do.

Engage the senses

Most seasoned writers have heard the maxim “show don’t tell,” or as Chekov put it, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” These are concrete sensory details that mimic the experience of actually being in a scene. And the reason they’re so effective is because they speak the language of the limbic brain. In other words, sense information produces emotional responses. Knowing this is gold for writers. It reminds us to “show” in our writing and even helps us decide what to show.

For example, if you’re writing a scene about a man who has just escaped from a secret prison, it’s probably not so important to describe the clouds or what color a nearby flower is. Instead, look for details that will convey relevant emotions like fear and elation: the blinding bright sunlight, how much his leg hurts, how far it is to the dense forest; describe the sound of a distant alarm beginning to wail.

We all have needs

Another way to approach this is to remember that we’re all human beings with common wants and needs. Remember that thing called “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” from high school psychology class? If not, Wikipedia has a nice overview of the theory. Basically, it lists our common human requirements, from simple to more complex. Here’s an adjusted version for writers, starting with basic and progressing to “higher” or more evolved needs.

Physical needs (food, water, sleep, air, protection from injury and harm)

Safety needs (personal security, financial security, health and well-being)

Emotional needs (love, affection, family, belonging)

Esteem (self-respect, status, power, freedom, approval, fitting in)

Self-actualization and Transcendence (meeting our potential,, spiritual awakening, concern with welfare of community, human rights, the environment)

Given that the limbic brain is always on the lookout for ways to fulfill its needs, we can write stories that either promise to fulfill or threaten these common needs. Subconsciously our readers will be interested because they all have the same wants and needs. This is what writing teachers are talking about when they insist, “every story needs conflict.”

Think about your favourite book. How many of these needs are being threatened? From Shakespeare to Harry Potter, you’ll find that protagonists everywhere are fighting to meet one or even all of these basic human requirements.

At bottom, reading is an emotional experience. We want vivid stories that make us feel we are part of the action. We want characters whose needs we recognize from our own life experience.  It’s why we cheer for them, and it’s what keeps us turning pages.

Written by Christian Fink-Jensen, FriesenPress Marketing Manager
Edited by Amy De Nat, FriesenPress Editorial & Illustrations Coordinator

Brain image designed by Harryarts/Freepik