Narrative and the brain

My friend Beata recently pointed me to this article on reading and the brain. Since this is the kind of research I do (fMRI research on cognition), I'm going to talk about it :-)

In this study, scientists from Washington University in St. Louis scanned people while they read short passages. They found that different brain regions activated depending on what was in the narrative.

.... the scientists used a brain scanner to see what regions lit up during the reading of a story. They watched the brains of volunteers as they read four short narrative passages. Each clause in each story was coded for the script it should theoretically trigger: movement in space, sense of time passing, characters’ goals, interaction with physical objects, and so forth. The idea was to see if different parts of the brain lit up as the reader’s imagined situation unfolded.

For example, a particular area of the brain ramped up when readers were thinking about intent and goal-directed action, but not meaningless motion. Motor neurons flashed when characters were grasping objects, and neurons involved in eye movement activated when characters were navigating their world.

In summary then, different parts of the brain process different facets of our conscious experience, and those same regions are active when we read stories with these facets.

So what does this tell us about writing? Well, on the one hand, it doesn't tell us that much. Anybody who's ever heard a story before could have told you that we draw on our own experiences to fill in the details of a story. Furthermore, even though this study shows us multiple brain regions are involved in reading, it doesn't tell us whether a paragraph that activates many brain regions is subjectively better than a paragraph that only activates one or two.

On the other hand, these results are kind of fun to think about. We fiction writers don't have to think of ourselves as mere storytellers anymore. Nope, we're brain manipulators. That's right. Read the words on my page and your neurons will do my bidding. Mwahahahahaha.

On a more practical level, we can use brain regions a a source of ideas for details to include in our narrative. Are you using all five senses? What about movement? Are your characters complex enough for the reader to infer motivations, thoughts, and feelings from their actions?

Here's an interesting tidbit about motion processing. The brain has special regions that process motion. For example, if you look at a screen of moving dots, your motion areas will activate. Interestingly though, areas that process motion of inanimate objects are distinct from the areas that process so called "biological motion". This is still an active area of research, but one reason biological motion might be special is because we're social creatures. The movements of fellow humans are important for us, so we've evolved to be highly tuned them. We're experts at interpreting movements (pointing? reaching towards something?) for the underlying motivations and mental state of the mover. This is something to keep in mind. Humans are highly attuned to biological movement, so use the movements of your characters to your advantage.

So what are your thoughts? Do these findings make you feel different about storytelling and writing?


  1. I think that's pretty fascinating. Although on an intuitive level, recommending that we incorporate more of the five senses into every scene makes, well, _sense_, it's cool to understand why that should be the case: because it literally stimulates people's brains more broadly.

    Or it's cool to understand that when we use a specific verb like "run" instead of simply "go," we're likely to excite those motor neurons as well as the strictly conceptual neurons that understand motion generally. I'm inferring, here, that this would be the case; obviously I haven't read the study.

    However, what I was really hoping to read in this post was something a little more hands-on (like the above example) that I can take with me back to my keyboard. As a subject for your next post, could you give us a list of distinct, excitable functional regions in the brain and what kinds of words/phrases are likely to excite them?

    I mean, for some it'll be pretty obvious--the words "bitter," "sweet," "juicy" et cetera are likely to activate those taste neurons. But for others it will be less clear. What, for example, should I write to excite the neurons that process proprioception?

    If you could give us a list of brain regions, and a sample sentence or two for each, that would really rock.

    Cool blog!

  2. Jason -- hmm, good question. I will have to think about this and get back to you. I probably won't be able to do it in the next few posts, but I'll let you know when I address it.

  3. What are you going to do with the list, Jason? I suppose if you know the relative locations of regions you're triggering, you could create moving patterns across the brain (back and forth waves, circling excitement, centre-out explosions, etc.) Fun, but nerdy on the level of programmers who work out the tones that variable speed disc drives play when accessing different sections of data so that they can write tunes with data searches.

    More seriously though, Livia, why would you assume a sensitivity to biological motion was to do with human sociability. Isn't it more likely to be about detecting and tracking prey? Or have they done the studies with non-human species to eliminate that?

  4. I hope to never write based on the kinds of algorithms I suspect will one day arise based on this kind of research. It appears more valuable, though, for helping professions practitioners working with "slow" children, brain-injured individuals, and potentially with mental illness than it does for writers.


  5. I've gotten *lost* in a story, so this makes perfect sense to me. When I read a really good story, I'm becoming a character, interacting with the story.

    I'd be very interested in seeing what a brain scan of someone critiquing a passage would look like, as opposed to just reading it.

  6. Graham -- Along with the nerdy theme, there are MRI physicists who program MRI scanning sequences so that the noise plays a song.
    Regarding biological motion -- most studies that I know of use human movement as stimuli. However, you can't design an experiment to prove why some region evolved. You can only find out what it does now. So any thoughts about some region's original purpose will involve speculation. It's very possible that the region has something to do with hunting as well -- although I'd say it's not just that. Humans are very good at discerning characteristics of other humans based just on the way the move (sex, age, etc), and this is more relevant to social interaction than hunting.
    Malcolm -- Yeah, I don't think any kind of algorithm could arise from this for writers -- at least any kind of useful one. More brain regions is not necessarily better. This is better used as brainstorming fodder.
    Sue -- I could speculate that critiquing would involve more activation in prefrontal regions ( which are involved in attention and cognitive effort), as well as more activation in regions involved in introspection as the critiquer thinks about how the story affects them. But these are wild speculations on my part.

  7. Livia, I love your blog. This is an exciting and entertaining look at creative writing. I thoroughly believe writing to be an art, craft, business and science.

    In regard to the topic at hand: these are exciting things for me to hear. Due to what I write--paranormal chick lit and erotic romance--I need readers to have a very specific reaction other than a compulsion to finish my book. I need them to need to read it because they are experiencing these things. Considering your findings, it seems that it is very possible to get the reader involved in the story.

    Looking forward to more about this and your blog posts in general.

  8. I'd like to know if there's a difference in reading the passages silently and reading them aloud. I can't speak for others, but I know that my imagination is a lot more vivid when I read aloud, and that I let my voice explore the text more.

    Just curious.

    I've seen people write to formulae before, I don't think it ever works. That said, there are exercises--there are always exercises!--to help. One of my favourites:

    Pick a scene from one of your stories.
    Divide a piece of paper into 2 columns.
    Write all the senses, save sight, on the left.
    Write down all the possible stimuli on the right.
    E.g. the sounds outside, what the room smelled like, what the furniture smelled like etc.
    Rewrite the scene, using at least 2 of the new sensations.

    I find this really helpful...hmm, I might blog about using the senses tomorrow...

  9. Graham--

    What would I do with such a list? I'd use it as a tool for writing more effectively when I'm trying to evoke specific responses in the reader.

    If, let's say, I'm trying to evoke an "out of body" feeling--let's say I'm writing some sort of paranormal story and a character is having an out of body experience--then knowing what kinds of words and phrases are likely to excite (or suppress) the functional areas involved in one's body-sense (the sense of "proprioception" I mentioned before) would certainly help me do that.

    On some level, of course, most of it is going to be kind of obvious. You want to stimulate the parts of people's brains that process temperature? Use hot/cold/chilly/sweltering et cetera. Duh. That's not rocket science.

    It's more the case that I think such a list would be useful simply because you can't hit the target if you don't know it exists. Again, proprioception provides a convenient example: the only reason in the world I ever heard about that brain region was because I read some baby brain development books when my first kid was born. I'm geeky that way. Knowing that humans do have a physiologically defined sense of how our bodies are arranged in space (something I hadn't known before) means that when I'm writing I can include that in the list of reactions I can try to evoke in the reader.

    Yeah, we all know about sight/sound/touch/taste/smell, but I'm guessing that there are a bunch of other funky little brain regions that people like Livia know all about but on which the rest of us are clueless. I'm betting there's some fun stuff in that list that at the very least could expand out toolbox as writers.

    But, you know, I'm not a neuroscientist, so I defer to Livia to draw up such a list and posit words and phrasings that might tweak those neurons...

  10. Toolbox is how I like to think of it. Not instructions or algorithms for making it better -- just something for your toolbox. Although Jason's probably giving me a bit too much credit here -- the way the field is at the moment, once I tell you what the brain region does, then your guess is probably as good as mine as to what sentences will activate it.

  11. From a writer's point of view this is indeed fascinating. I've long been interested in the amazing things the brain can do--Norman Doidge's 'The Brain That Changes Itself' is a book I recommend to lots of people. I am sure my brain changes when I read as per the study--but when I write, I can feel an actual physical change inside my head, as if the creative process shifts me from one side of my brain to the other. It would be interesting to see what would show up if this was mapped in the same sort of way as the 'reading brains'.

  12. I'm also wondering whether using various parts of the brain as you suggest has a preventive effect with regards to Alzheimers' Disease and other forms of dementia. It would seem that if crosswords and other puzzles help, so would complex writing.

  13. Harveymilk --
    I'm not sure about diseases, but pretty much any kind of difficult cognitive ability will protect against age related cognitive decline.

  14. Hi Livia- I found your blog from a link on Alan Rinzler's blog. How fun. For me, this reinforces basic writing tips- involve all your senses and never let you character sit there thinking about their life. Have characters interact since relationships are inherently interesting to us. I reviewed 'Buyology' by Martin Lindstron a while ago and linked to an fMRI scan of a person watching the 'Avatar' movie trailer if anyone's interested.

  15. I found your blog through twitter. I have always thought that the brain is amazing. Now with the new technology available to "see" what is happening, I'm even more convinced that old sayings such as "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" and "that's just the way I am" can be put aside, just as the old science has been. Because I come from a counselling and coaching viewpoint with emotional intelligence, I know that people can change and renew themselves and their patterns (habits). Wow! What hope there is!

    Jenni Wright

  16. This is a great post, and explains why movement gives us a feeling of "opening narrative space" when we write. I always tell my writing students to have characters move around, even if they just walk across the room. If you do that, you can feel the passage come alive.

  17. I feel sorta lame for not coming onto this post MUCH MUCH earlier, Livia, but I think it is AWESOME! I'm a sucker for things like this article, where we're able to just THINK about what it's saying. I will definitely read more of your posts (occupational hazard of being an avid Follower of many blogs, perhaps) in the near and far future. Clearly you tackle some interesting things.

    Oh, and I have two shunts in my head (one doesn't work anymore--but it's okay), so I've kinda got a feel for how my brain works a little differently. Thank God my writing brain is still fully intact. :)

  18. I have even heard from a friend who said that reading books can actually change the brain structure, knowledge can actually physically change the brain makeup, is that accurate?

  19. Nice post. It seems to have stimulated some thoughts about the brain in many respondents. Well done.

  20. Antonis StefaniotisAugust 21, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    Hi Livia,
    I'm a reader, and a writer only when I feel I need to give my girlfriend a personal gift. I also have a degree in psychology so I have some awareness of cognitive neuroscience.
    Yesterday I started thinking of my favorite writers... Hemingway, Auster, Chandler, Roth, Capote and others... and wondered how their differences in style, so unique every one of them, affected the reader and his brain. So I'm very glad to hit upon your site. I'll begin combing it today.

  21. Fascinating to think about, especially if it forces writers to think about how they convey the characters, action and setting of the story. In my WIP I deal a lot with wolves, and have tried to differentiate the way people and canines sense and react to their surroundings and each other. It makes for a lot of research and very awkward first drafts (I tried concentrating on the way things smell and sound, as opposed to merely they way they look, and found I was always running out of words -- I just naturally default to sight, as one of the earlier commenters touched on). Lots of food for thought her. Thanks for posting.