As writers of both fiction and nonfiction, there’s nothing more satisfying that building a rich, full world that both we and our readers can experience deeply. Bringing the worlds in our imaginations onto the page so I readers can step into it — and see, touch, and taste it — may be easier to do than we think. In fact, neuroscientists may have the answer.
According to exciting new research, rich and colorful language can evoke a simulation of reality in a reader’s mind. Amazingly, the brain doesn’t differentiate in a major way between actually experiencing a situation and reading about it.
For example, a study published by the journal NeuroImage revealed that the brain responds to words that it associates strongly with odors in the same way that it does when perceiving the actual smells. Simply put, when we read words like “cinnamon,” “lavender,” and “coffee,” we don’t just process the words mentally; they also activate the primary olfactory cortex. Fascinating, isn’t it?
What’s all this mean for our wordsmithing? In order to trigger this kind of physical as well as mental response in our readers, we need to use concrete words rather than abstract ones. Instead of describing an aroma as “savory” or “delicious,” for example, it’s better to use more words that more accurately evoke the odor, such as “lavender” or “apple pie.”
In the same way, words describing touch can activate the tactile sensory cortex. Even reading a metaphor involving texture (“leathery hands” or “velvet voice”) can trigger the area of the brain that controls touch-related perception. As a result, “silky” is much more evocative for a reader than a more general word like “smooth.”
This gives whole new meaning to “apple pie spiced with cinnamon,” doesn’t it? Write on!