New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing.

 

outsiderFiction writers share several traits. Just about all of us were avid readers as children; and most are, or feel like, outsiders. We might have families and active social lives, but there is something in us that stands apart from even the most moving or fraught events: an observing, sorting, shaping eye. I imagine it is similar to the way professional photographers see the world, through movable frames invisible to the rest of us.

I’ll give you one example; every writer I know could cite his own. One of the most distressing days in my life came when my toddler son was acutely ill with respiratory distress. We spent 24 hours in a Brooklyn ER while he struggled to breathe, a tracheotomy kit tacked above his crib, and doctors worked to establish the cause. I was at his side the whole time, exhausted and deeply anxious; and yet, even then, part of me saw the scene through a writer’s eye. Certain things struck me during that long day, and they would provide both the inspiration and the setting for my third novel, A Heartbeat Away.

New research in neuroscience has discovered some interesting objective correlates to writers’ subjective experience. If writers feel different, it may be because they are different. Experiments by researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany, as reported recently by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to observe activity in the brains of two groups of subjects: experienced fiction writers and a control group of novice writers. All subjects were read several lines of a story. They were asked to brainstorm for a few minutes about continuing the story and then to write for two minutes.

The results for the two groups were markedly different.

During the brainstorming sessions, the brains of the novice writers lit up in the visual area. It seems as if envisioning an imaginary scene uses the same mental muscles as actually experiencing it.

mad scientistThis, by the way, seems to me to correlate with earlier research, also through fMRI technology, into the brain activity of people reading fiction. Readers’ brains reacted just as they would if the experiences in the story were real. When descriptions evoked the senses, the appropriate sensory areas of the brain lit up. Interactions between characters activated the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which may explain why readers can form deep and lasting relationships with fictional characters. When non-writers write fiction, they use the same parts of the brain as they would in reading fiction.

The brains of experienced writers reacted differently. During the brainstorming sessions, their brains showed increased activity in the areas involved in language, not vision. To me, this finding relates to my own experience and that of many other writers: that sense of standing outside events, observing, even describing them to oneself. Like photographers, writers frame life, processing it into narration even as they live it.

After the brainstorming sessions, when the two groups began to write their own lines, their brains continued to draw on different regions. In the expert writers’ brains, a region called the caudate nucleus was activated; not so in the brains of novice writers. This area of the brain plays a role in skills acquired with practice, including sports, music, and games. Actions that in the beginning require conscious effort become less conscious with practice, migrating to a deeper level of the brain.

As a teacher of fiction writing, I see this clearly in the development of beginning writers as they learn their craft. Initially, most struggle with maintaining a consistent point of view. POV in general is terrifically hard and confusing… until suddenly it’s not. After enough practice and feedback, it becomes second nature, not something one needs to think about while writing.

Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Remember the old warnings against taking drugs, because mind-altering substances can, well, alter minds? Turns out writing does, too.

brain

For more on this subject, see this post.

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Finally, I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.