The Brains Behind the Books

Being in New York City, I couldn’t miss the exhibition called “Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón Cajal”.  So after Saturday’s Women’s March my friends Michael and Jenny and I zoomed over to the exhibition in the Grey Art Gallery at New York University.

Cajal (1852-1934) was a Spanish neuroscientist and pathologist who made extensive, minutely observed drawings of neural material and they really are beautiful, as you can see from the examples below. The dendrites look like trees, olfactory bulbs look like balloons, astrocytes like spiky ghosts and you can even spot a penguin in there.


Apart from his impressive draftsmanship, Cajal is remembered as the father of modern neuroscience. As a reward for his pioneering work he received the Nobel Prize and even has an asteroid named after him.  One thing the exhibition did not touch on but is incidentally interesting was Cajal’s dream journal, which he kept in order to refute Freud’s theory of dreams.

Although the ins and outs of neurology flew over my head like an SR71 (thanks to my husband the War Nerd for the simile), the exhibition was enthralling. It got me to thinking about stories and brains. Why do we like them so much? What’s going on in a story-teller’s brain? What is a reader’s experience at the cognitive level?

Writing Can Become Second Nature

An article in the New York Times by Carl Zimmer titled ‘This is Your Brain on Writing’ https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/19/science/researching-the-brain-of-writers.html describes the work of an enterprising group of researchers led by German neuroscientist Martin Lotze. They set out to see if there was any difference in the brain activity of novice writers compared to that of experienced authors. After scanning these scribblers’ they found that writing activated visual centers in novice brains whereas expert brains showed more activity in regions involving speech. Another difference was that the caudate nucleus became active in the experts but stayed inert in the novices. This makes sense because the caudate nucleus is typically engaged when frequently practised actions become more automatic and unconscious. For example, the caudate nucleus is also allegedly activated in the brains of professional basketballers and musicians.




Reading Fiction is an All-Round Sensory Experience

Annie Murphy Paul’s piece in the New York Times, “Your Brain on Fiction” lays it all out(p.s. why do NYT columnists like the ‘Your Brain on…’ formula so much? It was funny the first time. Maybe.). Apparently scientists have known for a long time that there are two language-interpreting regions in the brain: Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area (though this may not actually be the whole truth).




What scientists have only recently discovered, though, is that words associated with strong sensory stimuli activate the regions of the brain that register the real stimuli. For example the words ‘coffee’ and ‘perfume’ activate the primary olfactory cortex; the metaphors ‘silky hair’ and ‘leathery hands’ activate the sensory cortex; and action words like ‘kick’ and ‘throw’ activate the motor cortex. In short, “the brain…does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”


Reading Engages Your Social Brain

Living in New York gives you the chance to eavesdrop on conversations whether you want to or not. The other day in the gym changing room a young woman was on the phone with a friend discussing her blind date. He took her to a bar in the afternoon, got blind drunk and all touchy-feely in a way she didn’t appreciate.

‘I mean, who does that on a first date? In the afternoon?’ she appealed.

‘That’s off,’ agreed her interlocutor.

‘He was telling me all about his rich family and their house in Vancouver and I was like, ‘”I don’t care how much money you have!”‘

Comprehending the emotions, intentions and ideas of other human beings is a skill. Where is he coming from? What does he value? Is she complaining or boasting? I disagree with that but on the other hand she is my friend so maybe she has a good reason to think so. These are the kinds of thoughts that go through our heads when we are interpreting and assessing other people’s stories. Reading is an exercise that also exercises that skill.

‘Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies… and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.”’(“Your Brain on Fiction”)

Well that’s as much as I am going to maunder on this topic, for now. I’m kind of interested in fiction and dreams but will leave that for next time!


Possibly Interesting Books on the Topic of Fiction and Brains

  • Associate Professor of Management Communication Yellowlees Douglas has written The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer At $77, it is a bit too expensive for me but I must admit the premise is seductive: by understanding how people read, you can communicate more clearly.
  • Reading in the Brain: the Science and Evolution of a Human Invention examines this strange human predilection for the written word in evolutionary terms. It is written by Stanislas Dehaene, director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Saclay, France. Received a positive review here.


If you’ve read anything illuminating on the topic I’d love to hear from you!


2 thoughts on “The Brains Behind the Books”

  1. Other books you might like:

    Mark Changizi is a colleague of Stanislaus Dehaene – their stuff is complementary and they cite each other a lot. The introduction to _Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man_ is entitled “The Reading Instinct” and is slightly snappier statement of Dehaene’s “the reading paradox.” (The rest of the book is about speech, I’m only recommending this intro). And then secondly I think you’d like Chapter 4 in Changizi’s _The Vision Revolution_, entitled “Spirit Reading.”

    In addition, I think you’d really enjoy _The Philosophical Baby_ by Alison Gopnik. She’s a cognitive scientist, not a neurologist, and this isn’t specifically about reading. But one of her central points is that the ability to imagine alternate scenarios is essential to being able to think at all, as well as to be a social being. Her stuff on the centrality of play and imagination in early child development seems to fit very well with the points you make about fiction and empathy; the latter seem like the natural development of the former, with the former rooted in the nature of human thought and feeling. And she’s a very engaging and amusing writer.

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