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?