Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Neural Coupling: Our Brains on Stories

In my latest, and still being shopped SciFi novel, I play with the idea of a cognitive link between my two protagonists. It starts out with randomly transmitted thoughts, proceeds to visual images, emotions and even smells that slip into each other’s brains. As it turns out, a type of a mind connection happens more than we realize and it’s called neural coupling. Think Spock and the Vulcan mind meld. Think of every story you’ve ever read involving telepathy and now transfer that idea to writer and reader.

Reading and writing are two different activities, but there are times the writer and reader are on the same wavelength. Why? Because something peculiar happens in the brain when a reader is engaged in a compelling story. The reader’s brain registers the same emotions that the writer is creating with words on the page. This connection can be observed using MRI technology, which is exactly what neuroscientist Uri Hasson from Princeton did. “The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize.” And this connection doesn’t stop with emotions. When reading about taste or smell, think of those feasts in Game of Thrones, the part of the brain that engages with taste and smell lights up. The same response occurs when we are immersed in a movie. Have you ever noticed how many people move their lips when watching a scene that involves a kiss?

And here’s an interesting tidbit for writers. Cliché phrases don’t activate the brain in the same way. They don’t activate the frontal cortex. This means that not all stories are equally effective at creating neural coupling. Because I’m a writer, I can’t help asking what stories create the most powerful c. Because that’s the kind of story I want to write. I’m guessing they are the stories that explore universal human emotions. No matter how intricate the plot, how beautiful the prose, how high the concept, if the story isn’t one the reader can relate to on an emotional level the coupling isn’t as strong. And as writer’s we want the strongest connection we can forge with our readers. But there’s still a bit of a mystery here. Why do I connect more strongly with one person than with another or with one particular author?  There must be something similar in our mental make-up or existing experiences that makes us resonate.

We think in narratives. We remember in narratives. We use stories to connect with other people, to explain events in our lives, and to explain our own behavior to ourselves. Stories are the cosmic glue that connects us all.

1 comment:

Sechin Tower said...

You bring up some amazingly fascinating things! Right now I'm teaching my students about imagery and I had told them about the MRI imaging of readers' brains, but I never noticed things like the lip-moving during the movies. We are amazingly empathic creatures and it's powerful to be able to tap into that.