Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the category “The Science of Reading & Writing”

This is Your Brain on Words Part Five: Using red-hot metaphors

It’s only a baby step from what we discussed in Part Four of this series to the far more limited topic we’ll cover today. Last week we talked about how readers use the brain’s sensory regions when reading something that involves those senses.

In short, when you read:

“The ball shot past the pitcher. The defender at third dove to her left, stretching her body to reach. The line-drive slapped into the meat of her glove, her stinging hand instinctively closing around the ball before she skidded down the second base line.”

the language centers in your brain aren’t the only parts that you’re using. If you’re typical, your visual regions lit up on the first sentence, motor regions followed as you and the girl playing third base dove and stretched. You felt the slap and the sting and skidded across the infield — or at least the parts of your brain that would feel those sensations lit up as though you did. If she takes the glove off with her teeth and smells the leather when she does so, your taste and smell receptors (which are separate but intricately entwined) will come into play.

“Play” being the operative word. Reading fiction is playtime for our brains. Our asses may be planted in a chair or hammock when we’re reading, but our brains are running, jumping, aiming a sniper rifle, undressing a hottie, smelling cinnamon rolls baking, feeling the burn down our throats from shot of scotch, swimming… whatever.

Like I’ve said before, powerful mojo. So powerful, we need to be a little circumspect in how we use it.

First, the science

This is such a natural and logical extension of we’ve discussed already, I’m not going to dedicate much of this post to the underlying science. A 2012 Emory University study reported in the journal Brain & Language (Boo — not free) involving metaphors that refer to the sense of touch was enlightening. Long story short, when someone reads a metaphor that uses words associated with the sense of touch (like, “The singer had a velvet voice” or “He had leathery hands”) the sensory cortex –which is adjacent to the More Cowbell area and responsible for processing the sense of touch when you’re actually touching something– gets active. Control phrases meaning the same thing (like, “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,”) did not result in activation of that region.


Regions of the brain activated by hearing textural metaphors are shown in green. Yellow and red show regions activated by sensory experience of textures visually and through touch.

In other words, metaphors create associations beyond the conscious meaning we know they have, activating parts of the brain not directly associated with language. The phrase “that was rough” will result in a more visceral and sense-based response than “that was difficult.”

What to do with it

There’s the rub (hehe). For starters, this cautions against indiscriminate metaphor as much as it encourages its use. At the risk of sensory overload, here is my analogy.

Yesterday, I cooked a sage and garlic crusted pork roast for dinner (and used a whole bulb of garlic, plus about a cup of fresh sage). I was doing yard work and could smell all the garlic and sage from the corner of my yard. When I went inside, one of my daughters asked what we were having for dinner. I asked, “You can’t smell it?” because by that time the house smelled like someone hosed it down with a firehose full of garlic and sage. But she’d been inside with that smell so long, it wasn’t even registering anymore.

Our brains get used to stimuli and ignore them all the time. You noticed your shirt when you put it on this morning, but probably haven’t noticed it since. Well, until you read that, at which point your brain probably went there again and said “yup, there’s a shirt there.” So now I’ll talk about your rear end making contact with the chair you’re sitting in. Something else you are sensing, if you stop to think about it, but are ignoring unless you do so.

This is where the power of metaphor must be, like all things in the “powerful mojo” category, handled with some care. Being aware that the brain wants to experience the sensations we expose it to through words needs to govern how we describe things, including use of metaphors. Simple adages we’ve grown used to over time still have a significant impact on how the reader’s brain is processing things. With intent, we can use that to our advantage. Done haphazardly, even things that are clear and make perfect sense are not going to work harmoniously for the reader, sending logically consistent but viscerally conflicting messages. Those stories you think you should have liked but — for some, unknown reason didn’t bother finishing? Take a quick look. You may find that all the instruments in the orchestra were playing different songs. All fine songs in their own right, but it still doesn’t make for much of a concert.

Using the above baseball analogy, we may want to set the scene as a slow, lazy summer day. If we hope to draw a contrast by the sudden burst of action, that metaphor may be the perfect way to set the scene. If the contrast is not what we’re looking for, however, it is the wrong way to do it. Either way, the metaphor about the day is going to interplay with the physical activity in the scene, and all of it is going to happen in the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in sensory responses. And, significantly, that will nearly always happen without the reader being consciously aware it’s taking place.

Not all metaphors involve those responses. My guess (and this is only a guess) is that the metaphor in the first sentence of this post (“It’s only a baby step from what we discussed…”) lights up a host of areas. In addition to those portions of the cerebral cortex cued by taking a step, also vision (if you literally see a baby, which is how I process those words) and other, more diffused areas associated with your emotions relating to babies. Being a sucker for babies, I am certain I have a loving, protective, happy emotional response to that word, even when it’s being used in a metaphor about our analysis of brain function and reading.

That sets me up for an entirely different response to reading “baby steps” if the subject is an elderly couple walking, hand-in-hand, down the street (awwww) as opposed to a serial killer entering a family’s home while they’re asleep (creepier than shit). There is no right way to use this knowledge – if you’re going for creepier than shit, that may be the way to go; if awwww is not what you’re after, it may not be.

So, there’s the important part

…simply being aware. Not using metaphor out of laziness or without thought, but understanding there are real consequences to the reader (albeit often not consciously) every time we use one. This knowledge encourages “choosing the right word” at a different, much deeper level. The nature of the word we choose can invest the reader more deeply in what we want her to experience or subtly, unconsciously, divorce her from the experience we are trying to create. That metaphor that either seems so clever standing on its own or is thrown in out of habit without thought is still a part of the readers “physical” journey. Knowing the way that journey is processed and playing with it – either reinforcing or using metaphors to draw stark contrasts – can have a powerful impact on the feeling the reader takes away from the experience.

I think this goes a long way toward explaining why we sometimes just connect with the way a book was written. Even if we can’t quite…




Put our finger on it.

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.


A Comment From and Response to “Jim Bob Spritz”

I received a comment yesterday from “Jim Bob” a/k/a “nothanks@anonymous.com” on my post The Spritz or teh Shitz. I’m not in the habit of responding to (or even allowing) anonymous posts that have been washed through anonymizing proxy servers. If you have something to say, stand up and say it. The title of this blog is my full name, including my middle initial, for fuck’s sake.

I’m willing to make an exception in this case because “Jim Bob” seems to have a dog in this fight. Plus, he was reasonable and polite, which I appreciate. I have to assume he was responding in a quasi official (if anonymous) capacity. Here is his comment:


Needless to say, I don’t think “Jim Bob” is a regular reader of this blog. He also seems uniquely spun up on Spritz corporate matters. And, like I said, he’s reasonable and polite. Assuming this is a quasi official response from Spritz, here are my replies to the points he makes:

 1)    The phrase “insane new app” came from an article, not the developers.

I guess the joke I lead off with is a little less funny. That has nothing to do with my substantive critique of the product, but my bad.

2)     Spritz is intended for e-mail and news articles, not novels. The 15K+ stories about Spritz were sensationalizing with the “read a famously long book in a short period of time” thing.

Wow. Okay. That was fifteen thousand (plus) times you could have said “that’s not what this technology really does or is intended for.” From what I can read, you clarified that point zero of them. You did, however, get all excited about the first book to be converted to Spritz technology — without bothering to say “but this isn’t really for reading books.”

That raises an interesting new set of issues, though. The average e-mail is open for a total of about fifteen seconds. Not because it’s readable in that time. At least not word by word, first word to last, which is how you will be limited to reading it with Spritz. People tend to skim e-mail to see if they need the information, something Spritz makes impossible. So it’s entirely likely this innovation is simply a way to less efficiently go through the content of an e-mail, in the name of more quickly looking at every word it contains. One. Word. At. A. Time.

That aside, the most that could be claimed in an ideal Spritz world is reduction of about eight seconds on the time it takes to read an e-mail. I can see why you are playing up the first book converted to this format, even if that’s not what this technology is supposed to be all about.

3)    This is a major update to the 1970s technology. Spritz centers/focuses the word with the line and red letter so it’s easier to take in. That’s why comprehension is better.

Maybe you read my article by Spritzing it, because you seem to have missed the point entirely. Here is my point: Your product is premised on a completely false notion. I am going to put it in bold and all capital letters. If you are going to respond to something, please respond to this:


We read at the rate we do for a reason, and it is not because our eyes cannot move faster. Just like we talk at the rate we do for a reason. If humans were capable of processing information at twice the rate we do, don’t you think we would have developed a system of writing that presented information twice as fast? Written language did not develop randomly.

We read at the rate we do because that is the rate at which our brains can process the information. For most people, anything above 300 WPM can only be achieved through a loss of comprehension. For people particularly skilled and adept at reading, that number can go all the way to 400 WPM. Our eyes are capable of flying over words faster than that. We don’t because our freaking brains cannot take in the information any faster than that.

You have developed a toy that shoves the words in front of readers at a rate faster than their brains will naturally allow. Instead of the reader’s brain making the decision about speed vs. comprehension, the app says, “here’s the speed, comprehend whatever you can.”

Your product is (per your website) built around the premise that:

“Reading is inherently time consuming because your eyes have to move from word to word and line to line.”

That premise is simply wrong. Our eyes are fully capable of focusing and moving “from word to word and line to line” a hell of a lot faster than they do. Saccades do not happen at the rate they do because our eyes cannot move faster, they move at the rate they do because that is the rate a given reader can comprehend the information that is coming in. Including backward saccades and other movements that exist solely for purposes of comprehension.

Reading is inherently time consuming because our brains regulate how fast the information comes in. Taking that regulator off does not make a person read faster. That is the difference between “reading” and “looking at words.”

So, if I was wrong about who attributed the catchy title “insane new app” to Spritz, I’m sorry. My point, however, is that your product is premised on a conception of reading – and what limits reading speed – that is simply wrong. Your company appears to be marketing an app that lets people look at words really fast.

If you are interested in responding responsibly (i.e., not with an anonymous e-mail through an anonimizing proxy server) I would be thrilled to post your comments on my blog. And I would be thrilled to see some scientific data to support the premise your product is based on – that how quickly we move our eyes is determined my their ability to move and focus, not our brain’s ability to comprehend information.

To be honest, I’d also be thrilled if this were really a thing. Pleasure reading aside, I read volumes of painfully dry materials, usually several hours per day, at my day job. If I could ratchet that up with your app, and leave my pleasure reading as-is, I’d be tickled pink. It would be like meeting some of my nutritional requirements through a delicious meal and dealing with the rest by way of a multivitamin. I don’t have any particular problem with the concept of merely dumping information into our brains as fast as possible — the option to go slower would always be available. My issue with this technology is simply that the limit to how fast we can dump that information into our brains (and comprehend it) is not defined by how quickly we can look at words. Your product is built around the assumption that it is.

The Spritz or teh Shitz?

“Yea, yea, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” — Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park.


  The developers of “Spritz” tout it as “an insane new app” that allows you to read 1,000 words per minute. I was somewhat surprised that the app’s developers and I have precisely the same assessment of the technology, since I’m not a fan and they are the people who are trying to sell it. First, a definition:


inˈsān/ adjective 1. in a state of mind that prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction; seriously mentally ill. “certifying patients as clinically insane”

synonyms: mentally ill, mentally disordered, of unsound mind, certifiable.

This is a freaking milestone for truth in advertising. At least if you take it at face value. I’m sure they mean “insane” as in “check out how insane I am with my skateboard and bong full of Redbull.” In other words, “We’re a bunch of middle aged dudes who realized our target audience is our kids’ ages, so we’re trying to talk all hip and cool, like Shaun White or something, like the marketing consultants told us to.” First, there is nothing sadder than a dude who looks like this:


“Wooooah, Dude, this is totally freaking insane!”

. . . talking like that. I know, because I look a hell of a lot more like the guy in that picture than whatever caricature of an awesome hipster stoner dude he’s trying to channel.  It’s still funny, though, because my biggest criticism of Spritz stems from the fact that it is insane — it quite literally, forces you to read “in a state of mind that prevents normal perception.”


First, what is it?

Spritz is a concept that takes some of the science we covered in What the Reader Really Sees on the Page, and ignores the rest of the science behind how we read, in the name of reading faster. The app flashes text on the screen, one word at a time, at rates up to 1,000 words per minute. It looks like this:


First off, that is 500 words a minute. Although they claim their mentally imbalanced insane app lets you read twice that fast, none of the posted examples actually go that high. They go half that high, which should probably tell you something –particularly if you find 500 WPM version as annoying as I do. There is no fucking way I could be bombarded like that for two or three hours.

But, that’s what it is (at 50% power, anyway).

What do they claim?

The Spritz people make all sorts of claims on their website and in their marketing materials. Their explanation is summarized on their webpage, which states:

Traditional reading involves publishing text in lines and moving your eyes sequentially from word to word. For each word, the eye seeks a certain point within the word, which we call the “Optimal Recognition Point” or ORP. After your eyes find the ORP, your brain starts to process the meaning of the word that you’re viewing. With each new word, your eyes move, called a “saccade”, and then your eyes seek out the ORP for that word. Once the ORP is found, processing the word for meaning and context occurs and your eyes move to the next word. When your eyes encounter punctuation within and between sentences, your brain is prompted to assemble all of the words that you have read and processes them into a coherent thought. When reading, only around 20% of your time is spent processing content. The remaining 80% is spent physically moving your eyes from word to word and scanning for the next ORP. With Spritz we help you get all that time back.

Are their claims true?

Some of the words they’re throwing around probably sound familiar if you read this blog. Much of what they are saying, when it comes to the process of how we read, is absolutely true. We move our eyes in saccades, hopping from word to word. We have a focal point (where your fovea is pointed). Our eyes find a point in the word that allows our brain to best process it (what they are calling the “ORP”).

Much of what they’re saying is blatantly misleading, though. For starters, it’s not like you have time to order a pizza while your eye is looking for a place to focus (the “ORP”) in the next word. Your brain already found it and told your eye where to go while you were reading the previous word. That’s the reason we see seven or eight letters ahead of the four letters we are focused on, regardless of whether we read left to right (e.g., English) or right to left (e.g., Hebrew). If the word is exceedingly familiar and a few letters long (like “and”) our fovea will never rest on it, it’s already moved to the following word.

I have absolutely no idea where they came up with the “20% of our time reading is spent processing content, and 80% is spent moving our eyes” thing. I tried to find a study supporting that (the Google machine brings back a lot of Spritz shitz, and nothing else). But the claim is idiotic just on its face. I know, because I read, and the entire time I’m reading, I have a little movie going on in my head. I haven’t had 20% movie, 80% waiting for the next frame of the movie since I stopped having to sound out every freaking word when I was five years old.

While it’s true the rate of eye movements is absolutely the gating issue when it comes to reading speed, they apparently didn’t realize that we developed our alphabetic/syllabic system of writing to function with the way we process words. We do so through the auditory faculties in our brains, which have only known “language” as anything but sound for between 1% and .0025% of the time our species has had language. So I think the Spritzheads have the concept completely backward — our ability to read is not limited by the system we created for communicating in writing, we developed a system of writing that mirrors our ability to convert letters into syllables, syllables into ideas, and “hear” what the hell is going on in the story.

This whole “we spend 80% of our time waiting for our eyes to move” concept is pure bullshit, and completely ignores the way the brain is planning the next saccade while the fovea is focused on a prior word. Something that spritz stops your brain from doing.

They make a slew of other claims I’m willing to call bullshit on, too.

  • This is not “new.” This technology has been around since the 1970s. The biggest innovation Spritz has to offer is hype.
  • Humans can talk faster than we normally talk, too, but we speak and, not coincidentally, read at a rate of 200-300 words per minute, which is the maximum rate at which we can communicate in any fashion without diminishing comprehension.
  • Speaking of comprehension (and speaking of complete bullshit), they claim “studies have shown” there is no decrease –and may even be an increase– in comprehension with Spritz. They don’t cite a single study, though, and thousands of studies have been performed on comprehension. Every reputable study concludes anything faster than 300 WPM comes at a comprehension cost.

Spritz is hyping itself by making claims about how humans read that blend a little bit of science with a whole pile of bullshit to offer a product that has basically been available since eight-track tapes were a thing. They also have to ignore most of the science behind reading — particularly the fact that our brain is processing what the next word is subconsciously while we are reading the prior word — in order to justify their product’s existence. You simply cannot read faster than our writing system is normally read without suffering a decrease in comprehension. You can’t even listen to someone talk faster than that without having the same problem.

Our language forms (written and verbal, including every language in use on the planet) are limited by, and have basically developed to work optimally with, our brain’s ability to process and comprehend. Can you throw more words at someone? You bet. Our ears and eyes can take in hundreds of times more words than our brains can process. If I don’t give a shit about comprehension, I can glance at a whole page of a book at once, while ten people are talking and the TV is on. If, on the other hand, I plan on comprehending the words I am presented with, then 300 is about my max — and yours, too — for any given minute of either of our lives.

Is Spritz worth a shitz?

Not really. There’s a reason this technology went the way of the bell-bottomed pants, eight-track tape, and pet rock. for one thing, not all saccades are forward. While the movie in our head is playing at 300 WPM, our eyes will sometimes double-check something we already read. And since we read, talk, and think in what is essentially real-time, reading a novel three times that fast would be –quite literally– like watching a movie played in fast forward.

If your goal was to just get through Moby Dick so you could say you read it, but had no intention of enjoying it, I guess it could work. I can’t imagine being thrilled you just crushed every poem Maya Angelou ever wrote during one lunch break, but that’s effectively what Spritz has to offer. You’d have a level of comprehension somewhere between someone who really read the book and someone who just lied and said “Yea, I’ve read Moby dick,” but you could still claim you read it.

If you were reading something you actually need to comprehend, like I do at work all freaking day, I would strongly caution against it. There is just no science that supports the idea that a normal human can comprehend faster than we normally speak and read.

If you were reading something for pleasure, well you should do whatever the hell you want, because what you do for pleasure is up to you. And it could be kinda funny to read 50 Shades that way — just to see all that undressing and screwing happen at three times normal human speed. The lack of retention and comprehension would be an added bonus there, too.

Ultimately, if your goal is to have more than a vague recollection that you read something and the right to say (at least partially) truthfully “I’ve read that book,” Spritz doesn’t really bring anything worthwhile to the party. For better or worse, we talk and read and hear and comprehend at a rate of about 300 WPM, max. Anything above that either comes at a cost in comprehension or is, literally, too good to be true. If that’s even good. Since I like the little mind movies that happen when I read — and don’t mind the fact that they aren’t all in fast-forward, I’ll just call it bullshit.

This is Your Brain on Words Part Three: What the reader really sees on the page

“To see is to devour.”

― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Our Eyes Weren’t Designed for Reading

Evolutionarily speaking, eyes are a pretty big deal. Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker has even posited, in his Light Switch Theory, that the development of eyes set off an evolutionary arms race (what we now call the Cambrian Explosion). It makes sense – a predator who can see is going to make pretty short work of most of its blind prey. It’s going to do a hell of a lot better hunting (i.e., outcompete) other predators who are blind, too.

Making a long story (by which I mean hundreds of millions of years) short (this paragraph), light sensitive spots – which even plants have – grew and changed until animals that couldn’t see only survived if they lived where there wasn’t anything to see –underground, the bottom of the ocean, the Lifetime Movie Network, etc. Of those that can see, different animals have developed different eyes – the kind that work best for those particular animals. Dragonflies can see almost everything around them, they can see in both dark and light, and can see color. They can’t focus well enough to do something that requires seeing more than the outlines of shapes, though, and details within those shapes are indistinct. Which means no dragonfly could ever do something like read this blog. Boo dragonflies. Front-focusing, color-receiving, not particularly good at seeing in the dark eyes – like we have – predate humans being human. We share them with many primates and, interestingly, dolphins. So, yes, a dolphin could read my blog. Yay dolphins. Also, we can move our eyes without moving our heads. That doesn’t sound like that big a deal until you realize it’s more (in terms of sheer numbers, much, much, much more) the exception than the rule.

Spoiler alert, this is where this shit starts getting really cool

We didn’t develop our eyes for reading. We developed them, like everything else, to get food. Well, to get food and to get laid, but getting food was the focus, being both a prerequisite for and the ticket to the latter. So we’ve got these eyes that do a pretty good job of focusing on a specific animal we want to kill, and they also give us enough vision around that animal to know whether something else is hunting it (or us). Then every single ancestor you’ve had since your relatives were primates got laid and, hundreds of millions of years later, it’s time to read.

See, I told you the long story would be short.

How We Read With Hunters’ Eyes

You may think you are looking at a page on your monitor right now, but as soon as I mention it, I’ll bet you’ll agree that you are really just looking at one spot – like the word “spot” – and taking in the rest of this page as a progressively blurrier bunch of stuff. That small spot of clarity (and the relative clarity of what’s around it) is key to understanding how our eyes take in words.

The “sweet spot” in our retina, which is to say the spot that focuses most clearly, is called the fovea. It’s a depression in the retina, and it is what you point at the word you are reading at any given moment.


Reading takes place through a series of snapshots, called saccades, taken several times a second. During each snapshot, our fovea is focused on around four letters. We see a total of ten to twelve letters total – four to the left and seven or eight to the right of where we are focused. Assuming, that is, we are talking about Westerners, reading the left-to-right Western alphabet. If you were reading Hebrew or Arabic, for example, you still see seven or eight upcoming letters, but then they’re on the left (because their words read right-to-left). If you were reading Chinese, you would not focus on as many upcoming characters, because character density is completely different. You would, however, be fovially focused on the particular character you were reading, and looking (a bit, and not consciously) at what comes next.

In other words, reading looks like this:


Those saccades are important, because they are not a smooth roller gracefully moving from one word to the next, putting everything in the foveal sweet spot when its turn comes. Saccades happen through a jerky, fast process. During that process, our brain looks for every opportunity to take shortcuts and cheat. Once we’ve earned how to read and don’t have to sound out every word, we also stop “reading” every word. Because the brain is fast, and wants to get down to the story, it will grab the first few letters of an upcoming word while still focused on the previous word. If there’s a pretty good chance the next word is “the” or “its” or something it can assume it knows, the next saccade will shoot past that one, grabbing the last letter or two subconsciously as the fovea is brought to bear on the word after, using that trailing focus to confirm what the word was.

This is Where Our “Written Sounds” Really Shine

As we discussed in Part Two of this series, the base unit of human language is syllables. Letters are smaller, but we use letters solely for the purpose of forming syllables, which are something our brain can turn into word-sounds, and process as language.

Any guesses how many alphabetic characters are in a normal syllable? If you guessed “the same number we can shoot our foveal eye-lasers at” you are absolutely correct.


We are still (and always) glancing from sound to sound (syllable to syllable). When we see something coming into that foveal focus and think we know what it sounds like, we will skip it (like you probably just did with “it”) and move on to the next one, grabbing a little subconscious confirmation on the tail end. Among other things, this means that, long after we stopped “sounding out” words like we did when we were learning how to read, we’re still sounding out words. Every freaking time we see them.

That fact contradicts most of what neuroscientists thought about the issue for most of the past century. But modern studies have basically put the issue to bed – and did it in a way that surprised most researchers who formed hypotheses before we had the tools to really study this stuff scientifically.

Why Jane Doe, Fiction Writer, Should Give a Shit About Any of This

There are two key elements to how our (which is to say our readers’) eyes focus that can be enormously important to keep in mind when we’re writing. The first is that, to a fluent, adult reader, this process a subconscious. It is also extremely fast and efficient. So fast and efficient that most neuroscientists did not believe it (“sounding out” words) occurred in fluent readers for most of the time they’ve been studying it. The change came with advances in brain scanning technology, which confirms what used to be the minority view – we all still “say” every word as we read.

More importantly, when confronted with new (which is to say, unfamiliar sounding) words, we stop using the fast, efficient and subconscious approach. We basically revert to our basic, first grade version of “sounding out” words. Which sucks. This includes:

  • Circuitous lexicon proffered to elucidate our erudite palaver (i.e., snooty douchebag words that make us look smart).
  • Characters who speak with accents, requirin’ y’all to bees phone-etically spellin’ ert hissuns dialogue.
  • People, places and things in fantasy or sci fi (or anywhere else, for that matter). Thog’s Slayer is readable at a glance. The Glerphitities Schelphngbot of Xyphitites is just a pain in the ass.
  • Anything else that takes the reader away from the magic formula: Five letters or less make a sound, I know the sound those letters make, I can move on to the next sound without thinking about the letters.

Another key thought here is a play on (and important distinction from) the writing adage “never use two words when one will do.” I love that concept – keep your writing as clear, simple, and direct as possible – and it’s been stated in different forms by everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Ernest Hemingway to Stephen King. But the truth may be more nuanced. It’s entirely possible that two one-syllable words achieves the goal of clear writing for the reader in a way that one, three, or four-syllable word never will.

Understanding that we read in syllables – sounds – can be a game changer. As writers, we tend to think (and talk) in terms of words – word count, words per sentence, how many words did you write today, per-word rate for freelance work, etc. The Buddha talked about words, Shakespeare talked about words, there is no doubt that words are a big deal. But it is important to realize that for more than 99% of our existence as a species, words were sounds and only sounds. As writers, we have a tendency to forget that fact, thinking of the word as a thing in itself, not as a sound or couple of sounds that represent an idea. At their core, is all words have ever been.

Brief Recap of the Your Brain on Words Series to Date

We’ve covered a few key concepts that converge at this point, so this is probably a good time for a brief summary:

1)    Humans communicated through sound almost exclusively for (depending on who you believe) about 2,000,000 years or 200,000 years before we ever tried writing.

2)    Our first writing consisted of ideograms, which were not based on sound. However, ideograms only lasted about 500 years – beginning to end – before phonetic alphabets replaced them. During those 500 years, a tiny fraction of the human population was capable of reading or writing, basically just a few kings and priests.

3)    From alphabetic use of hieroglyphs 2,700 years ago to today, human writing systems are all based on symbols that represent syllables (e.g., Chinese script) or letters (like these) that combine to form syllables.

4)    Through millennia of trial and error, we ended up with various writing systems that all share one thing in common. They each allow the human eye (which evolved to hunt and get laid, not to read) to most efficiently convert the system’s symbols into syllables (sounds) that the brain can process as sounds. You’re doing that right now.

5)    As a result, words that throw common sound combinations at us flow by smoothly for the reader. Even a made-up name, like “Scrooge” is processed in a nanosecond, because it is easily turned into a sound. Real words, like Otolaryngology stop that subconscious process cold. So do any other words that challenge our “letter-to-sound” process, including jargon, accents, and dialect.

6)    The big takeaway is that we need to seriously think about focusing not on how many words we use, but how smoothly our sounds flow for the reader. Striving for stating things in the “best and simplest way,” as Hemingway put it, is not limited to “the fewest possible words.” Two one syllable words are almost certainly better and simpler for your reader than one four syllable word.

Coming up next…

Next up in this series will be getting from sounds to meanings – how our brains turn syllable sounds into tangible ideas.

Next up on this blog (because these posts take a ton of research and I have a day job and shit) will be: (1) a takeaway from this post about why that spritz thing that is supposed to let you read a novel in 90 minutes should be called shitz because it’s a crappy idea that ignores what’s really happening when we read; and (2) a long overdue explanation of why I just fucking love to cuss.

Not, necessarily, in that order.

This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

In this installment of the Brain on Words series, I am taking a look at the history of the human race as it relates to words on paper. Well, most of the time they were on clay tablets, but you know what I mean.

In the beginning, there was the word…

In the great evolutionary scheme of things, language is a new thing. When and where spoken language first happened has been called “the hardest question in science.” Since half the arguments I have with my daughters involve some variant of “I never said that” about something that was or wasn’t said last week, yesterday, or five minutes ago, it’s pretty easy to see why. Even if I had a time machine and a translator and could go back to the day after spoken language really happened for the first time, I’d probably find some protohuman couple standing in front of their cave and hear one of them saying, “I never said that.”

Fortunately, that part doesn’t matter a hell of a lot to us. We don’t need to get caught up in the debate about whether spoken language evolved 1.7 million years ago, as some scholars think, or 200,000 years ago, as others argue. A few even put it at about 40,000 years ago, though discoveries since the 1990s tend to discredit that view. In this analysis, though, we can just agree that it occurred “RFLTA” (a Really Fucking Long Time Ago). What matters is that homo sapiens were communicating through sound RFLTA, which was also a RFLT before they ever tried communicating through something other than sound.

It took a long freaking time for anyone to write that word down…

Writing – using agreed upon symbols to mean something – is so new that, in a evolutionary sense, the paint is still wet. Between grunting “I never said that” and anything we can really call writing, pictograms started showing up on the cave walls. They communicated ideas, but not through an agreed system of “this means that.” Instead, they just depicted the idea by showing exactly what the idea was. There was no reason to standardize them, and you didn’t need to be “literate” in any language to read them. They were, literally, just pictures:


Cave of Altamira, depicting what appears to be a Red Bull Energy Drink product placement, dated to around 15,000 B.C.E.

In other words, pictures, not writing. Over the course of the next 12,000 years, thanks largely to prehistoric humans’ lack of cable TV and internet access, they had plenty of time to think about standardizing those pictures a little bit. If you want to spend all week painting a beautiful picture, that’s one thing. If all you want to do is say there was an animal, there’s really no reason to go all Michelangelo on it.

So, eventually, a rudimentary system for writing developed. We went from pictograms (I drew you a picture) to ideograms (we’ve agreed this picture represents that thing). Sumerian cuneiform, showing up around 3,200 B.C.E., is thought to be the first, with Egyptian Hieroglyphics arriving around the same time. Cuneiform looked like this:


These appear to be want ads from a Sumerian newspaper, and someone is giving away free kittens.

This still isn’t writing as we know it, but it was a huge step in the right direction. This is certainly not an alphabet. It is a series of pictures that represent nouns and verbs. It was also a huge pain in the ass, with around 2,000 different symbols (although that number dwindled over time).

Ideograms were of limited use themselves, but in them were the seeds for something special. The number of symbols kept dwindling, meaning they had to cover more things. This process seems to have fed on itself until the Egyptians were down to just twenty-two symbols.

Here’s the cool part…

Those symbols no longer represented specific things. They represented sounds. By 2700 B.C.E., Egyptian hieroglyphs each represented a specific syllable that began with a single consonant of their language, plus a vowel (or no vowel) to be supplied by the native speaker. That development is huge. On a whole bunch of different levels.

Why hieroglyphs still matter

Think about this for a second – we (humans) had spoken language between two million years ago and two hundred thousand years ago, depending on who’s estimate you’re using. Not counting the time we also drew pictures on cave walls (since that’s not really “writing”), we had symbols that represented “things” for about five hundred years, total. Then we switched to syllables, the most basic component of human speech. When I say “speech,” I mean sounds we make.

We write sounds. We read sounds. Not counting the 500 years it took us to get from standardized pictures to pictures of sounds, humans have never communicated in any way other than sounds.

A little math shows how important this fact is. For something between 99% of our existence as a species (with the shortest estimate of when speech developed) to 99.99975% of our existence (with the longest estimate), we have only communicated with each other through sound. Either directly, or for a small slice of the most recent little bit, symbols that represent sounds.

It’s no accident our first written language was broken down by syllables. Syllables are single sounds, and sound is how we had been communicating at least since the development of anything we can call language. When we first developed written words to communicate ideas, they were single sounds.

And guess what?

That’s what we still do. And this is the payoff for the prehistoric history lesson. The only thing we’ve done with language since the Egyptians started associating syllables with pictures is tweak that system. The Greeks developed the first “true” alphabet, with consonants and vowels, and every writing system since is either a collection of symbols that represent syllables (e.g., the Chinese “alphabet”) or symbols that combine to form syllables (like I’m doing right now as I type this and you’re doing right now as you read it).


It hasn’t even changed all that much


We didn’t evolve to read

…writing evolved (or was developed) to work with the already existing part of our brain that hears sounds. We haven’t had time to evolve, anyway. In the first place, 5,000 years isn’t enough time to evolve much –unless you’re a virus or other simple organism, Also, hardly any people have been reading for much of the 5,000 it’s been an option. Literacy has ebbed and flowed over the millennia, with a few high points if you happened to live in Rome or ancient Greece at the right time, but for the most part, we’ve been an illiterate bunch for all but about the last 300 years. Chaucer and Dante were writing for the ten percent of the population who could read, but the other ninety percent couldn’t tell Dante from Danielle Steel.

The Bottom Line

Humans have always communicated through sound. Ironically enough, that’s precisely what a writer is doing, too. Our brains have not had time to develop “reading” abilities. Instead, we have created a system that uses symbols to represent (or combine to represent) sounds – i.e., syllables. The part of our brain we use to process written words is the same part we use to listen to someone talk. As far as our brains are concerned, they’re doing the same freaking job.

This is only the first step on our journey through the whole process this series will cover, but it is a crucial one. The first thing a reader does when she looks at letters on the page is (almost always nonconsciously) translate those letters into sounds. Not words, not images or ideas – syllables. Those syllable/sounds are then “heard” by the brain and combined to form words. That process (and the things that can interfere with it going smoothly) will be a big focus of this series. All of it is predicated on the fact that all human language – spoken, sung, written, or however it comes – is the same thing as far as our brains are concerned.

Coming up next…

The weird way we created a system of writing that works ideally with eyes that spent a few million years only worried about hunting and gathering.

This is Your Brain on Words Part One: Series Prologue – er, Forward. Whatever, it’s like a summary but you can skip it if you want.

This post is the first part in a series that will attempt to answer the question: What happens when someone reads a story? The question is simple. The answer, to the extent there is consensus in the scientific community with respect to certain aspects of the answer, is complicated as hell. It’s also fascinating.


This is your brain on words

By “What happens?” I mean, literally, what physiologically happens –from the retinal/foveal response in the eyes through the neurotransmitters all the way to creation of a little mind movie in the reader’s head. By “head” I mean the squishy, wet, amazingly complex organ that evolved for millions of years without seeing a single written word. Spoiler alert: that part about evolution is really important.

Who gives a shit?

Anyone who is interested in building a mind movie in readers’ heads, I hope. Not that I think Dickens or Nabokov gave a shit about neurobiology while writing. They were damned good at knowing its outcomes, though, and those outcomes have a lot to do with why they wrote so well. Their works, as well as every book read before or after, were all consumed in precisely the same way. It starts with a pair of retinas (actually, the fovea within those retinas). If things go well, it ends with the reader’s imagination showing him or her images that elicit real emotions. Being overly analytical, I can’t help but wonder how that magic happens. Also, I don’t believe in magic.

I do, however, believe in making things magical – or not suck, anyway. We can glean a shitload of information from the science that has been (or is being) done on this stuff. Information that can, and probably should, directly color decisions we make about word choices, use of dialect, sentence length, paragraph length, and a ton of other things we, as writers, constantly find ourselves pausing to ask questions about.

What this information won’t do

Tell you how to write a story, for starters. I’m amazed I can’t find the information I’m digging up for this series synthesized for writers anywhere else, because it provides a hell of a toolkit and answers a lot of questions writers frequently ask.

That said, owning a toolkit does not make one a carpenter. By the end of this series, you will understand why the name Ebenezer Scrooge works. Which is to say, what neurological response allowed you to read that name the first time you saw it without being pulled out of the story. Also how that name was crafted to read like words you had seen before, although you hadn’t seen that particular word, and how it allowed your brain to make immediate associations with the character and his personality based on the associative properties of the syllables in the names. I am not, however, saying that knowing that means you’ll be able to write like Dickens.

Tehere are C3RT4IN tihngs a6out wirtnig taht our brainz can D3C0DE even if tehy are worng.

And other things that are difficult for our brains to process regardless of how “correct” they are. Knowing how to lean on the strengths and avoid the weaknesses of a reader’s ability to process what we put to paper is all about making our words do their job the best way they can. Something that is ultimately decided inside someone else’s brain.

The point behind this series is to learn every hack, cheat, and trick our disposal to make that the mind movie run as cleanly as possible in the reader’s head. If the mind movie you have to offer is Ishtar or Son of the Mask, that may not be much of an improvement. But at least you’ll know what the theater looks like on the inside.

Overview of the series – what to expect

We’ll start with history and evolutionary biology. A lot of the murkiness about reading and the brain stems  from how unbefuckinglievably new reading is. (Get it? “brain stems” Bwwaahahahaha) It is so new, in fact, we haven’t had any time to evolve to perform the task. That’s not a problem, though, because we have forced the system of writing and language to evolve to work with existing features from our mostly primate brains.

Then come the eyes. The number of words we really focus on at one time (actually the number of letters, and it’s four) the number and location of the letters we nonconsciously process when we’re focused on those four letters and how our brains decide where to focus next based on that information.

The brain decodes the words. Some are easier than others. In fact, some are so easy, our brains skip them altogether, assuming their presence and intent based mostly on shape. Other words shut off our reading (in the adult, fluent reader sense) and make us revert to tools we used when we were first learning to read; a process that readers, understandably, hate. That was the point behind saying “unbefuckinglevably,” above. The process for determining the meaning of that made up word is entirely different from the process of deciphering (or intuitively knowing and moving on from) every other word in the sentence.

The words have meanings. Even words we’ve never seen or heard before can have direct, concrete meaning based on our intuitive use of language. The entire point behind writing is to create meaning in the reader’s mind. Much of how that occurs (and what can interfere with it) is firmly rooted in neurobiology. Most of that neurobiology was developed for spoken language, and we created written word systems to encode spoken word systems. Those spoken-word brain centers are still what process the written words. And, yes, that was the point behind the “brain stems” joke.

Those meanings create images. This field is new and exciting. The translation of words on paper into pictures –the mind movie. Some things facilitate that, others interfere, and knowing which do what is powerful writing mojo.

Images create emotions. The holy grail of writing – causing a reader to experience genuine emotion. Or, stated in my geeky way, causing the reader to have a physiological response to the words on the page. Something that best happens when the reader has forgotten she is looking at words on a page.

More than anything, the point behind this series is a highly specialized and technical version of putting ourselves in the reader’s shoes. Understanding what the reader actually experiences sheds a bright light on those things that facilitate or interfere with the reader’s experience.

So ends my forward/prologue/overview. Up next: This is Your Brain on Words Part Two: Evolution (we’re basically a bunch of primates with books).

Whistle While You Work (but probably not while you edit)

Music is about as dangerous for me as tequila. The last time I drank tequila I was nineteen years old and in Arizona. Well, that’s not true. The last time I remember drinking tequila was in Arizona. Then I woke up wondering why there were so many Mexicans in my buddy’s living room. There weren’t. There were so many Mexicans around because I was in Nogeles, Mexico. I (reportedly) was convinced that I loved tequila and needed to go to its house and meet its mother or something. My friends –wonderful people, but not exactly paragons of good decision making themselves back in the day– obliged. My love affair with tequila ended that morning.


Music can be almost as dangerous. I have injured myself while working out because music made me feel invincible. If I am going to listen to music while I run, I need to run on a treadmill or I will run into traffic or off a cliff or somewhere else, far worse than Nogales, Mexico. If I need to get pumped up for something, music will do it every time. If I need to calm down and relax, it can do that too. Music has an enormous impact on how I think and act. So much so that I can’t write anything with music playing. If I were going to write with background music, I would need to precisely tailor a song list to match what I was writing, paragraph-by-paragraph, or what I wrote would reflect the emotional content of the music more than my story.

Enough about me.

What’s the Real Scoop on Music When Writing and Editing?

There isn’t one. That’s not the result I expected to find when I went digging through journal articles and studies. And there are an astounding number of studies looking at these questions from every point of view imaginable. So far, aside from some general truisms, they almost all cancel each other out. The most worthwhile thing I could take from several hours of reading abstracts and the entirety of a score of studies is the reason they cancel each other out. That part is fascinating.

One good meta-analysis from Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany, put it like this:

[G]lobal analysis shows a null effect, but a detailed examination of the studies that allow the calculation of effects sizes reveals that this null effect is most probably due to averaging out specific effects.

In other words, one study shows a certain type of music improves performance among a certain group of people doing a specific task, another study shows different music or different people have impaired performance doing the same task, so the net result is an average of zero. BUT, that only means the average is zero, not that either study is wrong. So certain music for certain people helps. One study proves that. Different people’s performance may be impaired by the same music. The takeaway is not that music does not have an impact – it is the opposite. Music is having an impact in both cases. The impact just varies widely based on the other variables.

What are the variables?

Who the fuck knows? I sure don’t. There wouldn’t be a bazillion studies on this if anyone was even close to figuring that out. Some have been identified. One of the most cited studies, The differential distraction of background music on the cognitive test performance of introverts and extraverts, finds significantly different responses to music based on the subjects personality types. Extroverts perform better with certain types of music playing, while introverts performing the same task with the same background music perform worse. The type of task also seems to make a huge difference. There is pretty good evidence that music enhances the performance of even extremely complicated tasks (e.g., neurosurgery) once they are learned and are somewhat routine. However, background music generally interferes with the process of learning a much simpler task (e.g., memorize a random list of letters).

You would never want to learn to perform neurosurgery with music playing, but once you know how to do it, you probably do it better with the right music playing in the background.

If that weren’t enough, the real world adds a whole different pile of variables to the lab studies. I mostly write at home at night, after putting the kids to bed. My house is nearly silent. Tonight, however, a half dozen fourteen-year-olds will be having an ironically named “slumber party” at my house. Dozens of office-noise studies tell me that, while silence or white noise would be optimal, since I’m not going to be getting any of that, music will be less disruptive and distracting than a bunch of disruptive intermittent noise. Tonight, music may increase my productivity. Tomorrow, it probably would not.

What’s the Bottom Line?

Music undoubtedly affects our perceptions and our functioning, but how much and in what way varies so much by individual, there aren’t any real guiding principles. If you’re an introvert, even music that matches the mood you’re trying to capture in your writing is likely to interfere. If you’re an extrovert, that same music can help significantly. In either case, you can set your mood pretty effectively by listening before you start –almost all the studies show the right music can have beneficial effects before starting tasks.

As a rule (which means I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions), cognitively demanding tasks are performed better without music. There is a time to be upbeat and optimistic. Looking for unwanted commas and adverbs that need killing is not that time. How much this will affect you, though, depends (again) on so many variables the true answer ranges from “Don’t do it, you’ll never edit well listening to music you like” to “You can probably edit about as well with or without, so if it makes the task more pleasant, go for it.” One study in particular found that cognitively demanding tasks – while performed less well with any kind of music – were actually performed better when subjects listened to a voice saying the number “three” over and over.

So look for my new CD to drop soon: Mooky & The Mookettes, Three: three, three, three (three three three three).

Ultimately, though, the state of science on this topic puts it into a familiar category of advice on this blog: figure out what works for you and do it. If your writing is carefully structured linguistic constructs like Joyce wrote, music will probably do more harm than good regardless of your personality type. If you’re an extrovert, you’ll almost certainly write better with music you like playing. Or at least feel like you are writing better and be less fatigued by it. If you are an introvert, silence is golden. If you’re as sensitive to music affecting your mood as I am, the perfect song may get you started, but without a good playlist to keep things in that mood, all your characters would seem like bipolar, menopausal, chemically imbalanced, pubescent teenagers trying to find tequila’s house.

It’s not in Nogeles.

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