Prompting Readers Senses

A book I read about the craft of writing encourages authors to appeal to every sense – sight, sound, taste, smell, touch – when writing a scene or dialogue. As I edit my work, I often consider this advice and make little notes like ‘what does he smell’ or ‘how does the food feel on her tongue’. You can overdo it, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt to have the five senses written on your bulletin board as a reminder.

Annie Murphy Paul wrote Your Brain on Fiction in this past Sunday’s New York Times which gives an even more compelling perspective. The field of neuroscience has uncovered a new insight: “narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive”.

Paul provides examples for various research studies:

  • “words like lavender, cinnamon … elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to smells.” This area is called the olfactory cortex.
  • “when subjects … read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex … became active”
  • “words describing motion stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas”, the motor cortex.
  • Beyond the senses, reading prompts explorations of human and social life. Research shows that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective”.

So the next time you construct a sentence or read a sentence, think about all the different parts of the brain you can exercise in the process.

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