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  • Phil Parker

Neuroscience and the Writer


I am a huge fan of Lisa Cron. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend her book, Story Genius, because it transformed how I approached the writing process. In a nutshell, it employs neuroscience to explore the workings of characters' minds and to develop the narrative from that perspective. As other posts of mine have shown, my acting background helped in this process. You can read them here, here and here. However, Lisa Cron's process took me further. It established a framework that accompanied the theory. It created a practical template from which to develop my characters and so, the story.

My background in education had developed my interest in neuroscience. It is a powerful medium in that context but the same is true for writers. The more I researched it, the more I discovered that habits, developed over time, are a product of my brain's use of this science. I simply hadn't realised it. On social media I've found other writers discussing this topic, this post outlines some of the ways neuroscience can help us. Even validate the way we work.


The Writer's Brain

I'm going to begin with the work of Martin Lotze at the University of Greifswald in Germany. Let me point out not everyone recognises his findings but, as a writer, much of it resonates with me. Here it is:

Dr Lotze used MRI scanners to watch what happened to writers' brains while they were writing. He had them copy text and little happened in the brain. When they were asked to work on the plot and its characters, areas dealing with the visual fields of the brain lit up. Obviously that process involved them picturing the events in their mind.

Next he asked them to make notes, based on what they'd conceived, illuminating the hippocampus in the process, the part of the brain used for the storage of knowledge. The writers were recalling the information they needed to develop their ideas.

However, this experiment was conducted on inexperienced writers. Would the brains of experienced writers behave differently? Lotze visited the University of Hildesheim, which had a well-regarded course for authors. The results differed. Here, when developing their ideas for their story, the area of the brain linked to speech flared. Not the visual fields.

Another difference was discovered. For the established writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet. The caudate nucleus plays an essential role in developing skills through regular practice, like playing a piano or basketball. Initially it needs conscious effort but practice makes the skill more "automatic", instinctive even. In other words, like a piano player, the skills of writing kicked in. Skills which had been developed over time, almost as if the writer needs to work as an apprentice to establish themselves.

I'm not going to get into the details of the experiment. It has its critics. But, from our perspective as authors, it raises interesting questions about HOW we write. Do you find you create visual images in your mind when you're developing ideas? Do you hear the words? Do phrases come to you that need to be included in your work? (I found as I planned my latest story, using the Lisa Cron approach, phrases and conversations appeared in my head and quite often, even woke me up!)

Conclusion: Writing is a creative process but this experiment illustrated how writers with differing degrees of experience varied. That distinction between the visual and speech-related areas of the brain especially. Perhaps, as our experience grows, rather than thinking in abstract terms (seeing pictures) we can narrow down our creativity into the language we use. We think in terms of a chapter opening, a string of dialogue, a pithy turn of phrase to define a character.


Neurotransmitters and the Writer

Neurotransmitters are the chemicals which affect the workings of the brain. Scientists have learned a lot about them in the last 20 years. There are four which are relevant here:

  • dopamine (the ‘habit former’)

  • oxytocin (the ‘love drug’)

  • serotonin (the happiness hormone)

  • endorphins (natural painkillers)

I'm going to focus on these four because they impact on our brains as a writer but they also affect our readers too. Let's start with their influence on us, as writers.


From my time in education, I became a huge fan of the American psychologist, Carol Dweck. Her work on the Growth Mindset tells us that learning is a process of expansion. Where it can be applied to writers is in the way dopamine is used. Dopamine encourages habits to be formed. In this context, the habit is linked to when, how and why we write. Dweck maintains that the more you engage in an activity, the better you get at it. (Lotze's work, mentioned earlier, supports this theory). But, to stop this engagement, becoming a chore, it's important to enjoy it.

Conclusion: Writing must be something you enjoy. If you're forcing it, that won't achieve much. The habit of writing in certain times, or in certain ways or environments, is vital. Dopamine will increase and give you a buzz because you will have achieved something.


Setting yourself goals, schedules and expectations, when done out of context, produce stress. The secret is to start small. Don't envisage the book as your goal. Lisa Cron suggests breaking it down into elements which determine your protagonist then to develop ideas chapter by chapter. Keep your expectations low. Don't create hurdles where they aren't needed. Don't let the clock dictate your writing either. By starting small and building, brick by brick, towards your goals, dopamine levels increase. With your goals achieved, serotonin kicks in to give you a boost of satisfaction. Satisfaction which needs to be rewarded, don't forget.

Conclusion: It's easy for the process to become a treadmill. It's easy to set yourself goals that are so big they can never be achieved. Start small, focused and build. Let the neurotransmitters do their work.


Exercise produces endorphins. That "rush" brings us a creative energy. It's one of the reasons I still miss our Labrador, Maddie. She would nudge me repeatedly until we went for our regular long walks. It was after we'd lost her and the walks abandoned, that I noticed the change. It takes 15 minutes of vigorous exercise to generate the amount of endorphins needed to achieve that boost. There's also evidence suggesting this kind of activity increases brain cell production in the hippocampus, the area highlighted earlier that's linked to knowledge and information storage.

Conclusion: Endorphins (and serotonin) is generated with exercise. It doesn't need to require gym membership either! Just enough to stir you up, get the heart working so it produces more of these neurotransmitters.


Oxytocin is stimulated by social interaction. It's why it's called the "love drug". It motivates us to work together for a common purpose and makes us care about others in tangible ways – essentially increasing empathy and compassion. A study in Uppsala University, Sweden, showed how oxytocin increased in children in hospitals when they had stories read to them. More research found links between oxytocin and creativity and how it improved divergent thinking - "lateral thinking", the process of creating multiple, unique ideas or solutions to a problem.

Conclusion: Writing can be a lonely business. We all recognise that fact. That isolation can bring problems when it's prolonged. We now know that when we engage with others our brains release oxytocin and that enhances our creativity. Writing/Reading groups are ideal, even interaction on social media is a step in the right direction. But remaining isolated is definitely not recommended.


Neuroscience and the Reader

So far I've explored the impact of neuroscience on us, the writers. Now let's look at WHAT you're writing and ways in which your stories affect the readers' brains. If you have time, I recommend watching the video by Lisa Zunshine, from University of Kentucky, called Why We Read Fiction - Theory of Mind and the Novel. It explores facets of this theory in greater detail.

The information here is derived from advice from Susan DeFreitas, defined as 'author, editor and book coach'.

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Vulnerability - of a character in a story can produce oxytocin in the reader's mind. Described as not just a love drug but a "bonding chemical" we engage our emotions when a character is in danger. We need to feel empathy for them (the same won't be true for your story's villain!) but once that's established our brain gets busy releasing this neurotransmitter. That's why we may be driven to tears at their situation. It's why we turn the page quickly, plough onto the next chapter when we should put the book down because we need to go to sleep!


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Curiosity - the more questions you encourage your reader to ask, the more dopamine is released. It's associated with pleasure and reward, as well as memory and learning. It's released when we become curious, because that sends a signal to the brain that intriguing information is headed our way. Information that might just reveal something new about the world in which the story takes place. The brain loves to learn, and curiosity sends the signal that learning is about to occur. That’s why raising questions in fiction is such a strong tactic for getting your reader hooked at the beginning. The old adage applied to writers, "Show, Don't Tell" could be adapted to read, "Encourage questions, then show."


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Senses - writing tutors tell us to ensure we provide our readers with details of the senses experienced by our characters. This isn't just about good description, there is a neuroscience reason too. Mirror neurons react to those actions we read about, such as running or walking, onto the same parts of our brains that are active when we ourselves are running or walking. In other words, the reader's brain reacts in the same way as the character. It involves defining tactile sensations - the feel of a dress or cold wind on exposed skin. Sounds need to be described in ways that echo what the reader will have heard. Sights (colours, shapes, scenes, facial features etc) need careful description so the reader will relate in the same you've intended. Remember, it's not just about describing something - it's doing so in ways that engage your reader's senses. Research in 2006 for NeurolMage asked volunteers to read words with strong associations to smell, along with neutral words, while being scanned by a MRI. Words like 'coffee', 'perfume' and 'velvet' produced reactions which matched the volunteer's reaction to the thing itself. We see the word, our brain conjures up the sense.


Conclusions

A writer's brain needs to function on several levels. We are not only a creative bunch! The task of plotting the narrative of a book requires organisation, prior knowledge and life experience we can tap into when required. Our characters need to be real, again, we consult with the hippocampus to obtain those sources we've stored away for just such occasions. Neuroscience has shown how the way we think is affected by the chemicals in our brains - chemicals which are influenced by our environment as well as our thinking processes. Our moods, our emotions, will influence our writing too. With all these competing factors, isn't it amazing we can write at all? And even more amazing that we can achieve consistency in our writing!!


But writers need to engage their readers and that involves tapping into their brains too. This post has shown how neurotransmitters can help here. When a reader posts a review expressing their love of a particular character, the fear they felt in certain situations, the joy they felt at particular outcomes - these are neuroscientific reactions we planned. Or, at the least, we tried to provoke.


I began by talking about my experience of neuroscience from an educational perspective. The writing point of view is not that different. It is still about finding ways to engage your audience, to make them connect on an emotional level. In doing so, like the student, it may leave them with a lasting reaction to the story. The learning remains with them long after the final page has been turned.

In my view, neuroscience can be a major influence in engaging your audience on a deeper emotional level that provokes extreme satisfaction and perhaps encourages the reader to come back for more.

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