This is Your Brain on Words Part Four: Words as a gateway to all of the reader’s senses (or, Why my blog smells like cinnamon)
Spoiler alert – this is the post where the Brain on Words series goes from providing interesting but required background information to blowing your mind with unbelievably cool shit that makes being a writer the awesomest thing in the universe.
So far, we’ve covered how the reader sees a word (actually one syllable, clearly, and the next one or two less clearly). That sound is combined with the other sounds around it to form words. Those words are processed by the semantic systems in our brains, essentially treating them like spoken words, which is to say sounds that have specific meanings.
This part is not new. Researchers have known for decades that our brains have language regions, like the Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, because if you are the first person to figure this shit out, you get to name part of everybody’s brain after yourself. Unless you were both that smart and really awesome, which nobody is, or we’d have the More Cowbell area and the RedSox Nation area. But I digress.
While none of that science is new, we’ve already covered one new discovery. While it was thought for some time that not all fluent readers “subvocalize” or turn words into sounds to process them, brain imaging technology has given us a look, and it turned out most cognitive psychologists were wrong. Our sound processing systems are the gate through which all hearing people usher words into their brains.
Once those word/sounds are in, the really fucking cool stuff starts.
Brain imaging technology has finally advanced to the point that neuroscientists have “discovered” what everyone who’s ever been really into a great book already knew. Those word/sounds don’t just stay in the More Cowbell and RedSox Nation areas. They stimulate every brain center for every sense and every emotion we are capable of feeling in the real world.
One experiment was conducted by researchers in Spain, published in the journal NeuroImage (this publication is available free, courtesy of Oxford Journals). They came up with a list of sixty words with strong olfactory associations –everything from lavender and cinnamon to turpentine and vomit. They then looked at subjects’ brains via a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine as the subjects read those words (as well as the neutral control words, like “chair”). When the subjects read the “smell” words, their olfactory centers lit up — they were cuing their brains to respond to the sensation of a smell that was only there in the form of a word. To the olfactory centers in the brain, though, that smell was there.
Other neuropaths are involved, too. Not just those required for understanding the word and recalling its meaning, but also those required to remember what cinnamon smells like. Basically, the readers’ brain is saying “OK, it smelled like cinnamon, so I’ll respond the same way I do when I smell cinnamon.” Then it gasses itself with a little burst of imaginary cinnamon.
That’s about a 10 out of 10 on the scale of awesomeness. It isn’t just that sense, either. All of them – from touch to gross motor “running” actions, from the sense of taste to the sound of a bird in the distance – you name it, your brain will respond to by signaling the regions responsible for experiencing it in life. Here’s a great paper from Universite Lyon, France (also free) about how our brains respond to things like throwing and running and other physical activity. Also, check out Reading Salt Activates Gustatory Brain Regions: fMRI Evidence for Semantic Grounding in a Novel Sensory Modality from the journal neuroscience (once again, thank you to Oxford University Press).
When we describe a sensation, our readers’ brains are responding as though they were experiencing it. First freaking hand. Books were virtual reality before virtual reality was anything more than an oxymoron.
Readers do not translate words into mere “pictures” as many researchers (who apparently never read erotica of any kind) assumed for decades. The words are better described as being translated into experiences. First hand experiences that the reader is going through. Smelling, tasting, running, sex – a writer’s description of physical sensations creates an experience for the reader. That experience may include a lot of images, but it is far from limited to those images.
Unless, that is, a writer forgets that every sense, sensation, and movement can be part of the experience. This may well be one of the reasons successful screenwriters are seldom successful novelists. Sight and sound (i.e., dialogue) are two elements, comprising two of our five senses. The other three — taste, touch, smell — are too easily overlooked. Not just by screenwriters, but by all of us who are too in love with our story’s narrative arc to let a character stop to smell the roses (or turpentine, or whatever). In fact, this research was so compelling, I’m seriously considering a re-read (meaning the gagillianth edit) of my queried manuscript. Just focusing on the other three senses. I’m certain I covered them all to some extent, but my appreciation for their significance was far below what these studies have made it now.
I find myself thinking back to the use of taste and smell in Like Water for Chocolate, which I read 20 years ago and can still remember, thinking that may be why I can still remember it. This is some powerful, powerful writing mojo.
Too much mojo for one blog post, that’s for sure. Did I mention we were finally getting into the mind-blowing shit? Because I saved the most awesome part of this slice of the Brain on Words series for the next post.
And that one is still not the coolest thing I discovered when researching this series.