Sunday, November 25, 2012

Michael Sherer

JAN BROGAN - Please Welcome Michael Sherer today. After stints as a manual laborer, dishwasher, bartender, restaurant manager, commercial photographer, magazine editor and public relations executive, he decided life should imitate art. He’s now an author and freelance writer. Mike has published six novels in the award-winning Emerson Ward mystery series and a stand-alone suspense novel, Island Life, which was a USA Book News “Best Books” award-winner in 2008. Night Blind is the first of Mike’s new thriller series set in Seattle featuring Blake Sanders, and he’s working on the fourth in the series now. He’s also completed the first book in a YA thriller series.

He is giving away two free signed copies of NIGHT BLIND to two JRW blog readers chosen at random from the comments page and asks only that you check out his "Win a Kindle Fire HD" contest on his  website. www.

He'll also donate $1 for every copy sold as a result of reading the JRW blog to Sandy relief. Purchasers can message him on Facebook or Twitter to let him know.  His twitter handle is @MysteryNovelist. and Facebook subscribers can go to his author page: Michael W. Sherer, Mystery Author.

Mike grew up on a farm in northern Illinois, went to prep school and college “back east,” and lived in Chicago for 20 years. He and his family now reside in the Seattle area. You can also visit his web site d

Words Photo Credit: Manoj Vasanth, Flickr

The Power of Words
By Michael Sherer

Not long ago, I volunteered to give several presentations about writing to students at the local high school on career day. My own writing experience ranges from magazine features and public relations to novels and screenplays. I wanted to impress upon the students how many opportunities exist for them to find a career as a writer if that’s their interest or passion. Almost everything, I noted, from the instruction manual for their smart phones to the ingredient list and copy on a box of corn flakes uses written communication.

But I also wanted to imbue them with a sense of the importance of words, the power of language.
Listening to the radio one day a few weeks before my presentations, I heard a series of stories about words so captivating that I parked in a grocery store lot and sat there until the show ended.

The first segment, the story of how a deaf man discovered language for the first time at age 27, brought tears to my eyes. The second segment took the story in a new and fascinating direction. A researcher in England put rats into a white rectangular room and placed food in one corner. Before the rats were allowed to look for the food, however, researchers spun them around to disorient them. When they were released, they found the corner with the food in it about 50 percent of the time, which is what they expected.

Next, they painted one of the four walls blue, thinking that perhaps it would give the rats a visual cue, a navigational clue, such as, “the food is left of the blue wall.” When researchers repeated the experiment, however, the rats still chose the correct corner only half the time. Rats can see colors and have an excellent sense of direction, but they couldn’t put the two concepts—“blue” and “left”—together.

Another research scientist here in the U.S. took the experiment a step further. A Harvard psychologist specializing in children, she wondered if babies would be any better than rats at navigating using spatial cues. To her surprise, they weren’t. Like rats, young children understand what blue is, and they know one direction from another, but they can’t link the two concepts. She continued the experiment, progressively using older children and discovered that at about age 6, kids could solve the problem.

She theorizes that age 6 is about the time that children start using phrases like “left of the blue wall,” and that the act of using language links the two areas of the brain that understand the words “blue” and “left.” (Researchers confirmed the theory by taking the ability to use language away from adults in the same experiment—they performed the same as the rats and babies.)

The Old Library, Munmuseum of Utrecht, The Netherlands
What’s astonishing about research like this is that it suggests language doesn’t just allow us to communicate with each other. It also allows one part of the brain to communicate with another. Language, in other words (pun intended), allows us to talk to ourselves—to think. Without language, we would have perceptions, but no thoughts.

For a writer, that’s an extraordinary notion. First of all, language is a combination of words, and by combining words in new and different ways, we can not only communicate new ideas to others, but also influence the way they think. Talk about power… Shakespeare, for example, mashed words together in combinations no one had ever heard or seen before. (Many examples are given in another segment of this wonderful radio show.) And a large number of those word combinations are still commonly used today.

Can you imagine a world without words? A world without language?

The podcast is on Radiolab. If you haven’t heard it before, I highly recommend it.


  1. Thanks for the very interesting and thought-provoking comments . . . I am looking forward to reading your book.

    I think that writers have long known and understood the importance of words. It’s almost staggeringly difficult to imagine a world without words or language --- it’s a chilling thought to remind us that this power of words is perhaps more than we ever knew . . . or imagined.

  2. Hey Michael, thanks for stopping over! so interesting to hear about the rats--and also the idea that we'd have perception, but no thinking without words. For someone who's busy thinking ALL THE TIME, that's a wild concept. It would be more peaceful in my brain:)

    Wishing you lots of sales!

  3. Michael,

    I've read about similar studies before and one of the things I realize is how important it is for children to have a broad pallet of enriching experiences that are age appropriate.

    When we don't give young children exposure to reading and hearing language spoken well starting at an early age, it is very difficult for them to ever catch up to those with the supporting learning environment.

    The contest on your website is a very interesting approach to drawing in readers. Congratulations for thinking it up (or stealing the idea and implementing it well.)

    ~ Jim

  4. Hey MIchael! And welcome..

    I had a long talk yesterday with 6 year old who asked me whether dogs could think and communicate the same was we do. It was fascinating to hear what she thought!

    Then we talked about codes, and how to make a code. And I watched her, literally watched her, think about that, and come up with a code method that would really work. It was the simplest of ideas, but I did NOT help her. She came up with it out of her own thin air.

    SIgh. Wonderful, huh?

  5. I think this is a fascinating post. I often ask my friends who are bilingual what language they think in and if it changes when they are here, or in their native country.

    I love just about anything about the brain - but add language and I am totally there.

    thanks so much for sharing with us -


  6. Oooh, the conversation is veering dangerously close to one of my soapbox topics - early language development.

    I will keep it brief by agreeing wholeheartedly with what Jim said about children needing broad, enriching, developmentally appropriate experiences with language. Even early on when infants "don't understand" what we're saying, they are always learning.

    I will add that the tv doesn't count. I know kids pick up words from tv (that can be good or bad, of course!), but they are passive learners in that setting. They are not interacting which is what makes those brain connections.

    Ok, so that was less brief and more hijack-y than I intended...sorry! Here's a funny exchange to distract you:
    K (3): We have a lot of stairs in our house. Some stairs go up to upstairs and some go down to the basement.

    C (2): If only we had an elevator...

  7. Hi Michael--Like Jan, I love reading about brain science and the ways we learn. I actually was diagnosed as dyslexic and still have trouble telling left from right.

    Fascinating study you've mentioned, and must listen to the radio program.

    And read your books!

  8. Hi, All you great Jungle Reds! I read your post daily! Be sure to read my " What If" about your esteemed Hank P. Ryan on the Crime Writers Chronicle Sunday, Dec. 2 Thelma Straw in Manhattan --

  9. Paula,
    I did not think that waa even remotely highjacky!! It made me recall how when my daughter was little whenever I used a new word, she'd repeat it and then within five or ten minutes find a way to use it in the conversation.

    Thelma- Will definitely check it out!!

  10. Interesting thoughts about age and word development. It reminds me of a grandson who, at 3.5 years, had decoded the way letters create words and the way written words become spoken words. He picked up a new library book and read, with expression, all the way through.

    I think about how many words have different meanings to different people. I'm reminded that the spoken word can be different from the printed word, depending on the tone of voice used. That reminds me of some so-called 'rules' that some people have for writing, like 'don't use adverbs', 'always have the character say something rather than growl or whisper or shout it.

    I think those rules try to forbid these colorful, informative words in favor of simplification. Where do you stand on this?

  11. I'm in favor of verbs, not adverbs, that describe how someone speaks on occasion. "Say" or "said" becomes invisible to the reader, and often your characters' actions will indicate how they're speaking. But once in a while, someone does need to shout or whisper or scream, or, yes, growl.

    The rule against adverbs--those "-ly" words--is a good one because you as the writer should be able to convey what's happening to the reader that adverbs become unnecessary. Adverbs tend to convey the speaker's emotions, but actions and subtext should do that.