From Words to Brain

Once upon a time there was a girl. She was a sweet child, with bright blue eyes, a dimpled smile, and curly golden hair that tumbled over her shoulders. The most distinctive thing about her, however, was a red cloak that she wore everywhere she went. The village called her Little Red Riding Hood.

What is it that transforms a page full of words into a tale that entertains us, informs us, and ultimately leaves us changed? In her essay From Words to Brain, former MIT neuroscientist Livia Blackburne explores the brain basis of reading–a skill that is incredibly complex and integral to modern culture. Using the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood as a guide, Blackburne follows the story from its physical manifestation on the page, through the reader’s visual system, and ultimately into the reader’s imagination and beyond. Because the experience of reading a story does not end with the last page. That’s the point at which the real magic begins.

From Words to Brain is 6700 words long, or roughly 27 printed pages.

Read an excerpt here.


"MIT graduate student and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne penned the fantastic essay From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?), which uses the children’s classic “Little Red Riding Hood” to investigate the complex neural connections that take place while we read. Like the TEDBooks series, Blackburne’s piece contains big ideas in a compact, engaging, and accessible package."
--Kirsten Butler for Brainpickings

"I love psychology but am sometimes put off by how technical the science papers can get. Livia manages to cram psychological explanations into an easy to read essay that 'lay' readers can enjoy as well as those more scientifically minded. The up to date studies on how the brain interprets words are fascinating and I learned a lot from this fast read. Is Livia Blackburne the next pop science publishing phenomenon?!"

-- Joanna Penn,  Author

The essay is so well written that it reads like a piece of fiction. Blackburne manages to make an essay full of scientific information flow like an informal essay, which allows readers not familiar with neuroscience to grasp the results of complex studies without being faced with wading through dry material. Part of that accessibility is that she focuses specifically on the story "Little Red Riding Hood" and presents pieces of the well-known tale throughout the essay to demonstrate her points to readers. Her passion also shines through in her words in statements like these: "we'll explore just what it is that transforms a page full of words to an experience with the power to move us and leave us changed;" "you might say that a story is like a film reel, and the brain projects it into our imaginations;" and "some stories find resonance, spreading from reader to reader and setting in action changes that affect the world."

Anyone who has ever been touched by a written story should read this essay: It is a love letter to the writing and reading processes worthy of being read "just for fun" or for research. Livia Blackburne has a gift for writing, and her writing is a source for new ways of thinking about the art of writing and how it is, indeed, a process that affects the brain as well as the soul."

-- Jessie Sams, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University
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