About ten years ago, two journalists conducted a curious experiment: they bought several objects in second-hand stores (a toy horse, a bottle opener) and then asked professional writers to write a story about each one.
They then auctioned the items and their respective stories on Ebay. Of course, they made much more than they had spent to buy the items. They came to the conclusion through their studies that the right words attract people.
If professional writers are asked why their words attract readers, they cite a range of strategies: they arouse curiosity and emotion, they invent metaphors, they build suspense, they construct narratives…. Professional writers know from experience that these strategies attract people, including those who buy things on Ebay. But in recent years, psychologists, neuroscientists, and linguists have also been working on this issue to understand the science behind these strategies. Their experiments provide data on how the brain processes words and their meaning. From this research comes objective, science-based evidence.
They were able to sell all the items they had purchased and concluded, as they had studied, that the right words attract people.
As reported in ” Psychology Today” research reveals that words activate many more brain circuits than scientists had thought. For example, a team from the Institute of Cognitive and Translational Neuroscience in Buenos Aires asked a group of people to read texts containing action verbs and passive verbs (such as “I walk” or “I applaud”). The action verbs activated the linguistic circuits (a strip of gray matter located on the left temple).
The implication? People use their motor neurons to “walk” or “juggle” in order to understand the words. And that's not all: they also activate muscles. Another study, this time conducted in Bologna, asked a group of people to read simple statements, such as “Mark is smiling”. This reading activated microvolts in the cheek muscles. Similarly, negative statements triggered frown muscles.
Reading a statement about smiles activated microvolts in cheek muscles. Similarly, negative statements triggered frown muscles.
Given all this muscle action, David Havas and other researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wanted to know if muscles were responsible for better understanding. They asked women who had received Botox treatment, in which botulinum toxin A paralyzes the frowning muscles, to participate in an experiment to test this idea. They were asked to read 60 sentences about sadness, anger or happiness. The team hypothesized that if the muscles helped with comprehension, the botoxed women would take longer to understand the sentences about sadness and anger. In fact, they needed an extra 200 milliseconds.
In other words, the mind and body work together to process language in a much more complex way than previously thought. But another stream of research suggests that deep engagement comes from another mechanism: the reward circuit, the brain's motivational engine. This circuit, an evolutionary product of many animals, drives all of us to know if this stimulus is enjoyable, if it is worth consuming, if I should do more, if I will benefit and learn from it.
Another stream of research suggests that deep engagement comes from another mechanism: the reward circuit, the brain's motivational engine.
Scientists used to think that the effect of this circuit was limited to stimulating the search for and consumption of survival staples, such as food and drink. But neuroscientists now believe that this circuit motivates people to consume cultural stimuli such as music, art and words as well. If the stimuli are promising, the reward circuit fires with dopamine. If they are pleasant, dopamine stimulates the release of natural opioids, including enkephalin (similar to morphine) and anandamide (similar to marijuana). If they are particularly pleasurable, opioids activate five marble-sized “pleasure hotspots” in the brain, producing a bit of happiness. In other words, the neurotransmitters in the circuit stimulate motivation.
Neuroscientists now believe that it also motivates people to consume cultural stimuli such as music, art, and words. If the stimuli are promising, the reward circuit is triggered by dopamine.
Science points to a fundamental principle for getting people to communicate: reward them mentally.
So let's get to the heart of the matter: how can we use communication strategies to make ourselves look good to others? Several books talk about this and propose several:
- Reduce ads. Use verbs and nouns and save on adjectives and adverbs (“ads”). Instead of “give Antoine a positive review”, “compliment him”.
- Awaken the senses: respect the old maxim: “show, don't tell”. However, go beyond the visual aspect. Help readers not only see, but also taste, smell, hear and feel.
- Surprise. Combine different words or ideas: think “perfect storm” or “heart of darkness. Readers like combinations.
- Have attitude: inject enthusiasm into your story. “Write while the heat is in you,” Henry David Thoreau said. Henry David Thoreau said. By stifling your emotions, you reduce understanding.
- Invent metaphors: be clever with metaphors that emphasize distinctions. Bury the “writing with too much style” bogeyman. Discover ideas with elegant figures of speech.
Thanks to scientists, we have a revolutionary new way to decide how to write and speak in a way that appeals to people: choose words that stimulate action in motor and sensory circuits. That's a start. But you also need to choose words that cause a neurochemical effect in the reward circuits.
I'm a big fan of short stories about people – I'm a pro at tech and smartphones, serial literature, and writing in my spare time.