Friday, January 13, 2012

Elaine Johnson and what mystery writers should know about the brain...

HALLIE EPHRON: Our guest today, Elaine Johnson, started out as a teacher of serious literature (Shakespeare, Milton...), went on to become a college dean, and along the way became intrigued by the workings of the brain. After twenty years of research and lecturing on the brain, her book, “A Beginner’s Guide to the Brain: Major Discoveries that Will Change Your Life,” comes out today.

** And right here, on Jungle Red, we're giving away a copy of the book to one of today's commenters!

Coincidentally, a literature class Elaine is teaching right now focuses on our very own Julia Spencer-Fleming's work. Elaine, how did that happen?

ELAINE JOHNSON: It was requested, not surprisingly, by an Episcopal church as part of their education program. They chose all of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books over Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. I was happy with the choice because Julia’s treatment of the same characters through many books allows us to explore why mystery can be first-rate literature.

At the first meeting, it became evident that people welcome an opportunity to read mysteries. We agreed that after this term, we’ll survey a variety of modern mystery writers. Jungle Red provides a great foundation for a syllabus.

HALLIE: We're happy to hear that! So, what do you think it is about the human brain that makes us such suckers for mystery novels?

ELAINE: Certainly one reason the brain favors mystery novels is its deep, biological need to find meaning. Disturbed by unexplained events and randomness, the brain arbitrarily assigns them meaning. In its quest for meaning, it constantly searches for patterns and order. Murder mysteries satisfy the brain’s desire to make patterns, explain randomness, and in so doing find meaning.

HALLIE: Elaine, are there any discoveries or insights that would help us write more convincing villains.

ELAINE: Brain research suggests that convincing villains could be driven by deep emotion that blinds reason, a willingness to do anything to belong to a group it values, anger at being improperly valued—of losing status by being demeaned in some way--a desire to experience again and again the pleasurable feeling that is the brain’s reward whenever we do something it likes, and unwavering certainty that one’s beliefs are absolutely right, reasonable, and a reliable guide.

HALLIE: What about the mystery writer’s characters? Does the brain seem to prefer some kinds of characters over others?

ELAINE: Brain research suggests that three things especially incline the brain to like certain kinds of characters.

First, the need to belong: The brain is a social organ; it longs for and requires the company of other brains. When we do not belong—when we feel rejected, ignored, or reprimanded—we experience the same hurt that physical pain causes. Two brain regions respond to physical pain. The same two regions respond to social pain. This means that if the reader watches a protagonist who belongs--who has compassion or insight that connects her with others--then the reader will identify readily with that protagonist.

Second, mirror neurons: Mirror neurons cause us to identify with characters. These neurons have a unique double function. They fire when we do something—when we perform an action or feel an emotion, and they fire when we watch someone else perform an action or feel an emotion. Mirror neurons cause us to perform in our brain the action or feeling we observe. When we observe a protagonist think, feel, or act, our brain’s mirror neurons fire, linking us with that protagonist.

Third, morality: A moral sense is rooted in the design of the human brain. Genes dispose our brains to make moral distinctions. The brain’s innate disposition to judge human actions as either right or wrong, moral or immoral, helps explain the appeal of mystery novels. Mystery novels portray a moral universe where wrong-doing is punished. When bad guys are punished by protagonists they admire, the reader’s moral brain is happy.

HALLIE: That's so interesting -- I wonder if it also explains why we tend to be attracted to people (and dogs) that look like us!

And finally, how do you think mystery writers get it right about the way the brain works?

ELAINE: Mystery writers of drama and novels get a lot right. They have long intuited the things that brain research confirms.

They are especially good at recognizing that the brain is unreasonable. Research now proves that the brain is governed far more by emotion than reason. In fact, the brain so embraces emotion that it may adopt an idea for emotional reasons and then-- after the fact--look for reasons to justify that stand. Or it may ignore evidence that contradicts that stand. Emotion will trump reason.

Driven by emotion in the guise of reason, a person may in the name of religion or ideology hate entire groups, and that hatred can drive someone to attack any member of that group.

HALLIE: Reading Elaine's answers, I immediately want to know: are men's brains and women's brains wired differently? But maybe she'll tell us what she thinks in the comments.

Don't forget, we're giving away a book to one of today's commenters. Elaine will be checking back in today to answer questions and comments, so please, ask away! Don't forget, we'll be giving away a copy of the book to one randomly drawn commenter!

66 comments:

Darlene Ryan said...

Welcome Elaine. I'll definitely read your book. I'm intrigued by what you said about morality and the brain. My mother is in the hospital in a unit with seniors who almost all have some form of memory loss or dementia. I'm fascinated that despite their cognitive problems they all have a strong sense of right and wrong

I'm also curious about the answer to Hallie's question. Are men and women wired differently or just socialized differently?

Lucy Burdette said...

Elaine, this is fascinating! I love the paragraph about how to design convincing villains--that's something I struggle with in every book.

Do you have any training in neurobiology? What twists and turns your career has taken!

And PS, great choice to use Julia's books in the class--they are topnotch!

Elaine Johnson said...

Hi, Darlene,
I'm very sorry that your mother is unwell. You're right: the sense of right and wrong endures. It would be interesting to know instances of how it manifests itself among those with dementia. Yes, male and female brains differ in some respects,but research is just beginning to explore this. Different areas of the brain seem to develop in distinctive ways. Louann Brizendine has written "The Female Brain," which indicates distinctions

Elaine Johnson said...

Hi, Lucy:
I greatly admire the way you and your fellow writers create villains and weave complex plots. No, I am not formally trained in neurobiology, although I have studied textbooks, met with experts, and attended countless neuroscience lectures. My lack of formal training is the reason that this book had to be scrutinized by experts--to make sure i got things exactly right.

Sheila Connolly said...

Welcome, and thank you--you've presented some fascinating information. I was particularly struck by your comment that a person's mirror neurons respond to an observed (or read) act in the same way they would to a real act. I think that's what we as writers have always hoped to tap into.

Hallie Ephron said...

One of the challenges of writing a mystery is how to credibly mislead the characters so they draw the WRONG conclusions before they see the light. Any insights, Elaine, into how preconceived ideas color perceptions?

JLBuck said...

Hi, Elaine. Sounds like you've written a fascinating book. Mirror neurons, huh? Interesting concept to explain that resonance we hope to strike with our readers. I'd definitely like to know more about how that works.
Nice, informative interview.

Edith Maxwell said...

Fascinating stuff, Elaine. I particularly like the stuff on how to build a motivated villain.

Just one comment on Brizendine's writing. She's been pretty well debunked on the credibility scale by the researchers at LanguageLog.com, at least on issues regarding male and female brain differences in the area of language (including attention and hearing). She cites research that doesn't actually back up her claims. Here is one of several posts on the topic.
http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2232

Julia said...

The only thing I can think of is:

"This is your brain.
This is your brain on Julia Spencer-Fleming.
Any questions?"

Rhys Bowen said...

This is fascinating stuff, Elaine. I have to buy a copy. And I shall use the scientific justifications for people reading mystery novels in future speeches!

Karen in Ohio said...

What a fascinating turn this blog took today. Thank you, JRs, for bringing this book to our attention.

Knowing how to tap into readers' subconscious would be a valuable skill. Storytelling is a complicated business, isn't it?

Elaine, when you read, are you conscious of how your own mind is being manipulated, with all you know about this? It seems as though it might be distracting!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Always so encouraging to hear that writers understand some of this stuff intuitively--and so great to get insights that help us support and develop on the page what we think we know about characters and readers!

Many thanks, Elaine and Hallie.

Susan said...

While I was very interested in all that you had to say, I took particular delight in your initial comment that a "mystery can be first-rate literature." I often find myself feeling just a little defensive when I tell people that I read mysteries more than anything else. But I have long known that many of the character-driven mysteries I read are better written than a lot of what is billed as literature. Three names I would include in your survey of modern mystery writers are Deborah Crombie, Margaret Maron and Randy Wayne White.

ELaine Johnson said...

Sheila,
It's true that Mirror Neurons give us an entirely new way to view one another. If these neurons imitate what we see others feel and do, then when I see you being anxious and stressed, my neurons wire anxiety and stress. We do respond to others in profound ways.

Elaine Johnson said...

Hallie:
One of the most intriguing things brain research shows is that we do see through our personal wiring, the neuronal circuits shaped by our personal experience. That we judge right and wrong is innate, but our notions of morality are shaped by our own culture. That means that invariably preconceived ideas color our perceptions.

Elaine Johnson said...

J.L. Buck's recognition that mirror neurons are interesting is right on. Think about how we as parents affect the actual circuitry of a child's brain. That child's brain forms circuits that imitate how we treat others and how we behave. Thus inevitably kids will "do as we do."
What acts do we want others to imitate, to wire in their brains? What do we see that we want our brains to imitate, to wire?

Elaine Johnson said...

Edith Maxwell notes that Brizendine is a dubious source on the male-female brain, and she's quite right that the book is highly controversial. Interestingly, the very controversy surrounding it fed increasingly sound research--growing all the time. Journals are the best source to pursue distinctions. I mention Brizendine because it's out there, makes some decent points, and has some defenders. It's a starting point. Then go to journals.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

This is life-changing. Going back to read again. Thank you, Elaine!

Elaine Johnson said...

Julia: I'm glad you asked. My students love your books. They search for evidence to prove that Clare logically gets involved in Russ's cop work. They love the unexpected: an old woman excels at making websites. They admire your descriptions of nature--snowy, threatening woods, hot July days, a bumpy jeep ride on a rutted road. They argue about social issues. Is DDS really so bad? How must we act to help poverty-stricken and trapped people who surround us? Is Earth alive, and must we sacrifice work opportunities to keep Earth pristine? You make the class think. Students love, of course, the relationships that emerge--e.g., Marge and Clare, Russ and his wife, Russ and Clare--and more! Your language nails the look, the feel, of person and place. They like your descriptions and true-to-life dialogue. Just for starters......:)

Elaine Johnson said...

Brain research does actually suggest some reasons for the enduring popularity of mystery novels and drama. The sociable brain wants to belong; it hurts when it is rejected. Furthermore the brain rewards us with pleasurable feelings when we do something it likes. Mystery lets us identify with characters who strive to belong, or are demeaned. It also allows the brain to locate patterns, find meaning, and reach moral conclusions--rewarding activities.

Elaine Johnson said...

Hi, Karen,
Your question raises for me the whole question of how to read fiction. Should one read for the story, becoming immersed in it, or read with an eye to how a passage might affect the reader's neural circuits, or study how the writer made that remarkable scene, or used that character? Always I read first for the joy of it. Then I study a work at length, focusing on various things. Always I end amazed, though, at how fiction writers do what they do so well.

Elaine Johnson said...

Hi, Leslie,

I was thinking this morning that great writers write, and great teachers teach, and neither needs directions or justification. Winston Churchill wrote in around 1900, I think, arguing that great Orators are born and learn as they go along strategies that let them perfect this talent. Do you think that's the way with writers?

Elaine Johnson said...

Hello, Susan,
I agree with you. Now deceased, Marjorie Nicholson, a brilliant professor of literature at Smith and Columbia, pointed out that mystery satisfies the intellect in ways that a good deal of literature does not. She contended that stream-of-consciousness literature merely emotes, whereas mystery uses logic as well as emotion.

If a novel has a tightly designed plot, relies on cause and effect to solve a murder, uses fresh language skillfully to portray characters who further the action, and if it provides insights into human experience, isn't it literature? I think so.

Elaine Johnson said...

Thanks, Hank. On an irrelevant note, my nickname is "Jake." Four letter words that have a story behind them, yes?

Marie said...

I love this subject.
I also love that emotions sometimes override logic.
I suppose reading mystery novels is such a compelling merging of logic and love that it keeps me reading until the end. I also love Julia's work.

Elaine Johnson said...

I'm with you, Marie. Emotion does often override reason. In fact, neuroscience shows that the brain sends more signals from the area governing emotion to the area that reasons than it sends the other way. In other words, Descartes might have said "I feel therefore I am" more accurately than "I think therefore I am." When does emotion override reason to good effect, and when does reason serve us best? Of course, the two are intertwined; we need both. We're always in an emotional state, and we always need to temper emotion with reason. At times, though, should one lead, and not the other?

Reine said...

Hi Elaine, I love this! And I want to join that church!

When I was a div student, I discovered neuroscience. That, of course informed my theology, that I had to develop in order to graduate. That trauma enhanced my understanding of neuroscience - long time ago, so I need to read more - and it also helped me reselect my career direction without a lot of guilt.

At the same time, I discovered mystery novels-- that I had no time to read, of course, but started to get a few in while riding the M2 shuttle between Boston and Cambridge. I thought they were just relaxing in that they absorbed my tension on the ride between classes when focusing on my academic reading wasn’t possible. I see now that it was a lot more than that. Wow!

This is really exciting! I cannot wait to read your book!

By the way, Elaine, did you ever see the BBC UK series Brain Story (Susan Greenfield, 2000)? It's old, but one episode especially, has become a classic in the area where religious thoughts and feelings intersect as temporal lobe and "real-world" experience. I suddenly feel like I'm not making sense . . . aargh. Anyway . . . I have a friend who plays that one episode to his religion class every year in New Zealand . . . just wondering what you think of it, that is if you ever saw it.

Hallie, great interview! Thanks!

Lynn M said...

wow ... I never knew there was so much to learn ... I will have to look it up!

Anonymous said...

The workings of the brain in various peoples is so facinating, I surely want to read the book.

paulabuck said...

As an early childhood education person, I spend a lot of time thinking about how kids' brains develop and what pathways we (adults) are helping to create through experience (I always fear that someday on the news I'll hear the crazed serial killer say, "Everything was fine until I had this preschool teacher...").

It was fascinating to think in terms of big people brains! Thanks!

Elaine Johnson said...

Hi, Reine
Thanks for the reminder about Greenfield. You're lucky to have seen that series. I missed it, but read her articles and books. As you know, she's concerned that because environment changes connections in the brain, watching excessive violence or playing violent video games might adversely wire the brain.

Elaine Johnson said...

paulabuck, your concern about the way preschool influences children is well placed. Research suggests that the most important relationship a child has is with her caregiver, whether parent or pre-school teacher. If that relationship is loving, then circuits wire to hold love. If a child is unloved, is abused or neglected, neurons do not connect for love. Genes predispose us to love, but it takes experience for the brain to build circuits that let it love.

Reine said...

Hi Elaine,

Yes, I am fortunate in that the producer sent me a VHS tape of Part 1: Mysteries of the Mind, the one that I referred to in my comment above.

I would be happy to share it if you have a way of watching it. I have no way to convert it, myself.

Or you can watch the entire 4.5 hours on the Internet here: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/brain-story/

Reine said...

Hi Elaine. Just a little side note. Baroness Greenfield's book BRAIN STORY is wonderful but leaves out much of the video story from the series, in particular the religious feeling connection to certain temporal lobe areas, among other wonderful observations. Her interview with neurologist Shahram Khoshbin, regarding Van Gogh, is spectacular.

Elaine Johnson said...

Reine, Thanks for the internet link. That was very kind of you. It's fascinating that Greenfield is reaching theologues. I'm glad to hear it. She does make great sense.

Pauline Alldred said...

Hi, Elaine. Thank you for the fascinating information. I was especially interested in convincing villains. One of my book clubs recently read Jo Nesbo's The Snowman. Somehow I was hoping a Norwegian would come up with something better than a serial killer is crazy because a person has to be crazy to be a serial killer. Whenever I read about a serial killer I want to say this person is bad, really bad, he/she has to go.

Nancy Gardner said...

Wow, what a terrific topic! Thanks Elaine and Jungle Red Writers!

Karen in Ohio said...

Elaine, it seems to me that mysteries engage the mind because of the intricacies of plot. The questions that arise, and the twists and turns in events and character development keep readers on their toes. Intellectually lazy people do not read mysteries, I believe, but those of us who enjoy challenging ourselves to solve the puzzle along with the characters not only read mysteries, we seem to become what looks like addicted to them.

Your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Pauline,
Nesbo's book disappointed me, too. Steig Larsson's "Girl" shows convincing motive, I think. Martin's father raised him to find killing gratifying. Experience caused neurons in Martin's brain to connect in ways that sanctioned serial killing. He isn't necessarily crazy. He's evil. Maybe "evil" refers to the reasoned, sane choice to be brutal. Just a thought.

Elaine Johnson said...

Hello, Nancy,
I'm glad you find the topic interesting. We're far more in charge of what we become than most of us realized before neuroscience discovered the brain's plasticity--its flexibility. Neurons--nerve cells in the brain-- constantly do make connections in response to experience. Experience changes the brain's structure and function. The experiences we choose build our brains.

Anonymous said...

Pauline:
Sorry, look to "anonymous" for my reply to you. Forgot to enter my name.

GBPool said...

Elaine, As a writer myself, I have experienced something other writers have mentioned. When we are writing, we get out of the way and let our characters speak for themselves. That free flow of thought does bring forth deeper character traits and even things we didn't know about our characters at the beginning. What part of our brain lets this creativity bloom?

Elaine Johnson said...

Pauline and Karen:
Twice the computer rejected Elaine to put "anonymous" in my attempts to speak to Pauline. Sorry, Pauline.
Karen, yes, mystery readers are intrigued by intricate plots and puzzles. The brain's quest for order and meaning make it keen to solve puzzles. Perhaps anything gratifying also has the potential to be addictive. Think about the pleasure the brain gives you from eating chocolate, winning a video game, or reading Hallie Ephron's mysteries. We want more of that same pleasure, and so we pursue it by repeating the act. If we pursue it inordinately, we become addicted.

susan said...

Great stuff. Thanks, Elaine.

Elaine Johnson said...

Hi, GB Pool,
Your description of writers getting out of the way to allow thought to flow freely, to allow characters to emerge by themselves, describes the creative process, of course. Creativity is now receiving attention from neuroscientists, but I stay clear of that subject simply because so little can be said definitively. Where does an idea come from? How is it that when we sleep, we compose a melody? I've written about being creative in a different book, citing various sources. But I don't really think we know yet how the brain works to let us create. You're a creative person. Awesome, says I. I have no real understanding of how your brain achieves that magnificent feat.

Reine said...

Elaine: Having a bit of trouble posting this. Hope it works . . .

Just a little side note. Baroness Greenfield's book BRAIN STORY is wonderful but leaves out much of the video story from the series, in particular the religious feeling connection to certain temporal lobe areas, among other wonderful observations. Her interview with neurologist Shahram Khoshbin, regarding Van Gogh, is spectacular.

Elaine Johnson said...

Thank you, Susan, very much indeed.

Elaine Johnson said...

Thank you, Susan, very much indeed.

Elaine Johnson said...

Reine:
Thanks for the tip about Koshbin.

Reine said...

And now I see I've posted it twice. Time to sit this out. Love this blog, today, and thanks again!

Elaine Johnson said...

Reine:
Opps: Khoshbin. Sorry.

Deb said...

Sorry to be so late to the game today, gang! What an interesting post, and comments. How wonderful that scientific research is providing an explanation for things I've always felt intuitively about mystery novels--that our brains naturally like puzzles, that we need the structure of order restored, and that crime novels appeal to an innate moral sense.

And what better example of all these things than Julia's books?

Oh, and very interesting on how to create a believable villain. I agree with Pauline Allread about the serial killer--people who kill because they're crazy has never worked for me, as a reader or a writer!

Mary Ann Stewart said...

Regarding the brain being able to convince itself of things that are not true -- seems like there could be a fine line between straightforward "false" and something more subtle, like a new scientific discovery that's difficult for the surrounding culture to accept. Any interesting reserach at the edge where "false" and "new" meet?

vkaz said...

At some level, as you've implied, the villains' motives have to engage us. Their reasons for committing the crime have to be relatable and we have to be somewhat sympathetic to them. I'm struggling with this balance as a writer.

I love Julia's books. They rock!

Elaine Johnson said...

Hi, Mary Ann: Your remark suggests why schools need to teach the art of reasoning. Once we absorb from family and friends a certain belief, that belief is part of us, like an arm. Just as we fight to keep that arm, we fight to keep that familiar belief, world view, that is wired into our brain's circuitry. Our neurons like the familiar. Galileo says, "Guys,Copernicus was right. Oh, and the sun has spots." He was made to deny his findings, all based on evidence. No one wanted to hear the evidence. Today astronomers using powerful instruments say, "Folks, there was a singular amazing event--Big Bang--when the universe exploded into existence. We have been evolving ever since." Many reject the idea of such evolution not for reasons, but because the small lens of belief often controls what people see. Believing is seeing.

Elaine Johnson said...

Vkaz:
I applaud your concern with convincing motivation. To this day, Iago's "motiveless malignity" makes one wonder why Shakesepare gave his villain such a thin motive for such heinous deeds.

Elaine Johnson said...

Vkaz:
I applaud your concern with convincing motivation. To this day, Iago's "motiveless malignity" makes one wonder why Shakesepare gave his villain such a thin motive for such heinous deeds.

Elaine Johnson said...

To everyone who commented:

Thank you for raising wonderful points that caused me to consider things from a new point of view. Thank you, Hallie, for inviting me to talk with mystery writers--my students are as pleased as I am, and also for bearing with my obvious unfamiliarity with the world of Blog.

Have a lovely three-day weekend, everyone.

Suzanne said...

Wonderful post. Thank you, Elaine and Hallie.

Emotion will trump reason. Yes, indeed, and this is why those political commercials that play off our fears work so much better than the ones that appeal to reason.

Susan said: I often find myself feeling just a little defensive when I tell people that I read mysteries more than anything else. A Harvard Business Review article describes how people who read predominantly fiction understand real human emotion better than people who read mostly non-fiction. So keep reading mysteries. :-)

Suzanne Adair

Gram said...

Hi, Great blog, but I think the discussions following were even better. I will be looking for that book. Thanks, Dee

Nancy said...

The Beginner's Look at the Brain (I hope I got the title right) sounds fascinating. Reading the interview I also found a new-to-me author, Julia Spencer-Fleming.

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