Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Jaye's Blahg recently led me to read this article (and for the record, I have not once caught that girl twirling counter-clockwise; I even did some math to try to get my left-brain ascendant, but still she twirls clockwise.) This got me thinking about the experience of reading.

According to the list of left-brain/right-brain attributes given in the article, the act of reading--of studying shapes and comprehending them to be letters, words and sentences--is a left-brain activity. However, turning those words into a vividly imagined landscape, figuring out the unspoken emotional subtext of the characters, spotting symbolism and even just enjoying the story all appear to be right-brain activities.

I find this utterly fascinating! It seems like a fiction writer's goal is to get the reader's right-brain as deeply engaged in the act of reading as possible.

If you watch the videos in the aforementioned article, there's a really trippy performance by a man who had his corpus callosum (the communication pathway between the two hemispheres of the brain) severed to treat his epilepsy. The man focuses on a dot in the middle of a computer screen while the experimenter causes two images or two words to be flashed on the screen, one on either side of the dot. The man's right-brain picks up on the word or image on the left-hand side of the screen (seen by the left eye; the brain's hemispheres are wired to the opposite side of the body for some reason) and his left-brain picks up on the word or image on the right-hand side (seen by the right eye.)

When the man is asked what he saw, he claims to have seen the image his right eye (and thus left-brain, responsible for speech) saw. However, his left hand (connected to the right-brain) will draw a picture of what his left eye saw. The right-brain apparently can't spell out the word, but if the left eye saw a picture of the word "pan", then the right-brain will draw a pan.

Interestingly, both the right- and left-brains seem able to comprehend either a word or a picture, which tends to give lie to the list of right-brain/left-brain attributes in the article. The right-brain apparently can read, because the man's right-brain demonstrably did so in the video. So when you read fiction, and are vividly imagining the world depicted, which hemisphere of your brain is actually comprehending the words?

I'm sure the answer is that both sides are involved to a degree, but I really wonder if an MRI would show a different pattern of activity depending on whether a person is reading a novel or a scientific article. Would one hemisphere be noticeably more stimulated than the other, depending on the content of the reading? (Someone has probably done this study, but I'm too lazy to exercise my Google-fu right now. Maybe tomorrow; I'll let y'all know if I find anything.)

The other thing I wonder is whether a person whose corpus callosum has been severed can enjoy a novel normally. What if--and this is a nifty idea--what if the right-brain enjoys the novel but the person doesn't consciously know it? They might read an exciting passage, and feel their mood change, but honestly not be able to comprehend why it happened based on the words they just read. Analytically (i.e. according to the left-brain), one passage might seem no more or less exciting than any other, even while the right-brain is bouncing around with excitement because Big Tex just found out Lily-Mae had his baby fifteen years ago and never told him.

And here I am being frantically analytical myself and that dancer is still spinning clock-wise. My right-brain iz teh roxxorrz, apparently.

Understanding exactly what's happening in the brain when a person's imagination is fully engaged in a story could be extremely useful to writers. It might illuminate why certain techniques work better than others for hooking the reader's interest, and it might give us more diabolical tools in our quest to turn the reader into our page-turning zombie love-slave.

BRAINS!!! BRAAAAAINS!!! *droooool* LET ME HAVE YOUR BRAAAAAAIN!! (Both halves of it, please.)

(PS - Happy Hallowe'en!)

(PPS - Ooh! I just thought of something else:

When a child learns to read, they put together the sounds associated with certain letters and then try to figure out what spoken word--which they already know--is created by that collection of sounds.

When they get good at reading, however, they begin to recognise the word by its shape. That is to say, to the child's brain, it isn't a word anymore--it's a picture.

Maybe that's how the right-brain is able to read words (as demonstrated in the video). Perhaps it can attribute the same meaning to both a collection of lines depicting a drawing of a pan and a collection of lines depicting the written word "pan".

Again, I come back to wondering which half of your brain does the reading when you're in the middle of a novel that has completely slurped you into its imaginative landscape.)

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