We all know the effect reading a good book can have. Accomplished writing helps us invest in the characters; cry with them, laugh with them – hate them. But how much can we actually feel for what we’re reading and how does great writing really affect us? Apparently, it’s all about how we read. How we digest the words and understand the meanings behind them. Your reading technique can influence your brain’s performance which in turn affects how you respond to words on the page.
We all read in different ways. Some of us skim over chapters, some hop to the end first, others read every word meticulously. The best writers know how to piece together information in a way that can hack into different parts of a reader’s brain.
Keith Oatley, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist) believes reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”
In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, participants were asked to read words with strong odour associations alongside more banal content. At the same time their brains were scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine.
Words such as ‘coffee’, ‘lavender’, and ‘perfume’ affected the part of the brain that processes smell. Words like ‘velvet’ activated the ‘feelings’ part of the brain. The scans also showed the effect detailed description, evocative metaphors and emotional dialogue between characters have on our brains. For example, metaphors like: ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘he had leathery hands’ lit up the sensory cortex whereas similar but more bland phrases: ‘The singer had a pleasing voice’ and ‘He had strong hands’ did not.
What was the point of the research? For us writers it’s pretty significant. The brain makes no distinction between us reading and truly experiencing a situation. By using the right words we can truly get into our readers’ psyche, make them believe what’s written on the page is really happening.
Of course, that doesn’t mean peppering your prose or poetry with dense description and hundreds of adverbs. You only have to read the master of minimalism, Amy Hempel, to understand how rich spareness can be. And, as Stephen King said in On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft: the adverb is not your friend, they’re like dandelions.
If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If
you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . .
fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters,
your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with
dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are.
In one respect novels and short stories go beyond Professor Oatley’s simulation of reality, they give readers an insight into a world they may only be able to experience off the page, but they give us writers something else - the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
… but only if we use the right words.