Suspend Your Disbelief

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This is your brain on fiction

Can neuroscience help you become a better writer? That’s what YA author Livia Blackburne, a graduate student in neuroscience at MIT, wonders on her blog Narrative and the Brain.

Livia Blackburne

Livia Blackburne

…. 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. […] 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. […]

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?

Blackburne may not be giving any earth-shattering advice here, but her blog provides interesting justifications for the old tried-and-true rules of Fiction I: why good writing needs concrete words and actions; why you should strive for vivid descriptions; why you should make your “bad” characters sympathetic. (Hint: the answer to that last one involves the fundamental attribution error.)

And check out editor Alan Rinzler’s recent interview with Blackburne on the same subject.

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