There’s a revolution happening - and it’s all in our heads. Neuroscience is our generation’s great enlightenment, with pioneers such as Susan Greenfield and Lisa Feldman-Barrett delivering incredible insights into how our brains and minds work. But what do those insights tell us about readers and writers? Can we use these emerging discoveries to better produce, sell and market books?
Can we afford not to?
1. Position reading as the ultimate neural sport
In a special issue of Language, Cognition and Neuroscience published this April, Falk Huettig, Régine Kolinsky and Thomas Lachmann from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen revealed just how powerfully reading and writing alters not just the functioning but the very structure of the human brain. Their research shows that readers display greater skills in many areas than non-readers, such as perception of categories, verbal short-term memory, and the ability to quickly name images, colours and symbols. So reading doesn't just increase knowledge - the very act of reading helps get our brains in optimal shape. Could Gen Z be drawn into reading if it were branded it as a sort of cognitive CrossFit?
2. Help readers recover their 'cognitive patience'
In her new book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, UCLA neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf describes how digital 'skimming' has compromised our ability to concentrate and enjoy longer-form prose. She believes that we should see our brain as 'bi-literate', able to switch between two distinctly different modes: fast information-decoding mode, and a deeper, more analytical and empathetic learning mode. Cultivating openness and understanding about this new dilemma is key. Could publishers offer subscription packages that help ease skimmers into the joys of deep reading, starting with shorts, progressing through novellas and ending up with epics? Could this be the perfect hook for a whole new generation of inclusive, accessible, science-driven reading retreats?
3. Help writers make more powerful choices
There are now several studies analysing the impact of different types of language on readers' brains. Cliches and over-familiar objects leave us cold; textures, smells and other specific sense qualia light up our neural networks like fireworks. As As Annie Murphy Paul reported in a fascinating piece for The New York Times: "Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that 'runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.'" Armed with a better understanding of quite how visceral an effect their words have on their readers' systems, writers might experiment by imagining themselves as coders of 3D internal VR experiences, rather than low-tech scribes. Rather than searching for the most elegant or original metaphor, they might ask: what image will have the most neurological impact?
4. Get young scientists hooked on fiction
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, widely regarded as 'the modern father of neuroscience', was a voracious reader. Born in 1852, he became addicted to his mother's cheap fantasy novels, and soon went on to devour Dumas, Hugo and Cervantes. A wonderful piece by Benjamin Ehrlich in The Paris Review posits that it was his love of highly imaginative fiction that allowed him to visualise and navigate the "number of unexplored continents and vast stretches of unknown territory" in the brain. There's a big opportunity here to bridge the disciplinary gap between the arts and the sciences, and show young STEM hopefuls that a fluency in stories can help unlock their gnarliest problems. How can we put fiction on the scientific syllabus?
5. Highlight the unique power of audiobooks
A recent study from UCL found that people experience heightened physiological reactions, with sronger heart and brain responses, when listening to audiobooks as opposed to viewing screen adaptations of the same works. “Listening to a story on Audible produced greater emotional and physiological engagement than watching the scene on a screen, as measured by both heart rate and electro-dermal activity,” concluded Dr. Joseph Devlin, head of experimental psychology at UCL and lead researcher on the project. “Though, when surveyed, participants assumed they were less engaged, the biometric sensors indicate otherwise." The last part's the clue: people don't realise how uniquely compelling the audiobook experience is, even if they're hooked. Could you release an audiobook as a serial on a streaming service as if it was 'event TV' - then encourage the sort of post-listening social media watercooler chat that we see with series such as the BBC's The Bodyguard? We need to create a big change in how people perceive audiobooks, so they see them as the most escapist and potent of all their entertainment options, whether they're regular 'book book' readers or not.