Thursday, April 23, 2015

Neuroscience for Writers

If you would like your writing to be less cliché and more unexpected, there are two areas of the brain that you can cultivate.

1) The nucleus accumbens which responds pleasurably to surprise and 2) the binary operator which helps us divide complex concepts into opposites.

Most of us say that we like surprises.  We mean pleasant ones like a marriage proposal (and an engagement ring) or a snow day. No one wants a burst water main or a tax audit.

Historically surprises were NOT pleasant, and usually came in the form of an invading army or a plague. We’re actually wired to observe patterns, form models and order our lives precisely to avoid surprises in an effort to control our environment and to survive.

In our STORIES, though--fiction, nonfiction, films, song lyrics, even advertising--we delight in the unexpected.  

The nucleus accumbens, located behind the left eyebrow (just kidding, I have no idea where it is), responds pleasurably to surprising stimuli. It’s evident from birth and if you’ve ever played peek-a-boo with a nine month old, you know what I’m talking about.

Humor is largely powered by surprise, so figuring out how to tickle this area can help make us funnier writers. Even (especially) the most serious of subjects can stand some lightening up. But how to do this? you may ask.

Well, the binary operator is responsible for our ability to divide and simplify relative and complex concepts into opposites. Such as: big/small, isolation/integration, mature/immature, good/evil. That's how we get black and white thinking in a world that's an infinite number of shades of gray.

If we use this binary operator to think in terms of OPPOSITES in our fiction, and push everything as far out on the poles of extremes as possible, we will get more surprises.  Lukewarm or gray characters, settings, and situations will not produce the unexpected.  When you put opposites and extremes, incongruous and exaggerated elements together--voilá the unexpected!

So the next time you sit down to write, remember your neuroscience.

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