- Experiments today show how the brain processes language—and how to engage others when writing and speaking.
- Readers and listeners tap motor, sensory, and emotion neurons—not just language-processing neurons—to comprehend what you say.
- If you want to thoroughly engage readers and listeners, choose words to hook the brain's motivation engine, the "reward circuit."
- Research by psychologists and neuroscientists point to 8 time-tested strategies to get dopamine rewards flowing.
A decade ago, two journalists, Rob Walker and Josh Glenn, ran an informal study. They bought dozens of trivial objects at thrift stores and garage sales. A pink toy horse. A felt mouse. A Pabst bottle opener. The average price: $1.25. They then asked professional writers to write a story to animate each one. Afterward, they auctioned the items, paired with the story, on eBay. Walker and Glenn originally spent $128.74. Their eBay sales: $3,612.51.
Ever doubt that the right words engage people? Walker and Glenn could measure how much. Their net gain: $3,483.77.[i]
If you ask professional writers why their words win over readers, they often cite a variety of strategies: piquing curiosity, stirring emotion, inventing metaphor, raising suspense, crafting narrative, and so on. You may have used these strategies yourself. Together they comprise the “art” of writing. Professional writers know by experience that these strategies engage people, including people on eBay.
But in recent years, psychologists, neuroscientists, and linguists have investigated the “science” of these strategies. Their experiments provide data on how the brain processes words and meaning. From that research emerges objective, science-based proof—not just subjective, art-based guidelines—for communicating with impact.
How Writing Affects the Brain and Body
The research reveals, first, that words turn on much more brain circuitry than scientists once thought. A team led by Adolpho Garcia at the Institute of Cognitive and Translational Neuroscience, at Favaloro University in Buenos Aires, asked people to read texts with action and passive verbs—“I am walking,” “I am juggling,” “I am applauding.” The action verbs turned on people’s language circuits—a racing stripe of gray matter along the left temple. But they also turned on circuits that control the feet and hands.[ii]
The implication? People use their motor neurons to “walk” or “juggle” their way to comprehending words. So, if you want to engage people, you have to get their motor and sense neurons going with your choice in composition.
Words also activate muscles. Edita Fino and colleagues at the University of Bologna asked people to read simple statements, like “Mario smiles” and “Mario enjoys.” They measured the micro voltage in the cheeks’ smiling muscles (the “zygomaticus major”). Both statements activated those muscles. Similarly, negative statements—“Mario scowls,” “Mario gets angry”—fired the frown muscles (the “corrugator supercilia”), which create the furrows between your eyes.
With all this muscle action, David Havas and others at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wanted to know if the muscles are responsible for causing better comprehension. They asked women who had scheduled themselves for Botox treatments—in which botulinum toxin-A paralyzes the frown muscles—to participate in an experiment to test the idea.
The women then read 60 sad, angry, and happy sentences. An “angry” one: “Reeling from the fight with that stubborn bigot, you slam the car door.” A sad one: “You hold back your tears as you enter the funeral home.” A happy one: “Finally, you reach the summit of the tall mountain.”
Havas’s team theorized that if muscles aided comprehension, the Botoxed women would take longer to understand the sad and angry sentences. Sure enough, the women needed 200 extra milliseconds.[iii] So, indeed, yes, the team could conclude that muscles in your body—not just neurons in your head—aid comprehension.
The mind and body, in other words, work together to process language in ways that are much more complex than anyone once thought. So much so that hundreds of experiments like Garcia’s, Fino’s, and Havas’s suggest that the big secret to engaging people when you’re communicating is to write and speak in ways that recruit as many brain and body parts as possible.
The trick, then, is to choose words that give people a full-on brain-body buzz. People will then get caught up and engaged in the richness of what you have to say.
The Rewards of Engaging Writing
But another stream of research suggests that deep engagement stems from another mechanism—the reward circuit, the brain’s motivation engine. The circuit, a product of evolution in many animals, presses all of us to know: Is this stimulus appetizing? Is it worth consuming? Should I pursue more of it? Will I benefit from it and learn from it?
The circuit, mainly in the center of your head, evaluates all manner of stimuli that enter the doors of your consciousness. It doesn’t matter if the stimulus is water or wine, Ding Dongs or donuts, social connections with family or friends, shelter in a cave or a tipi, or the prospect of sex. The circuit stands ready to make an evaluation of every stimulus.[iv] It then gets you to act on it (or not).
Scientists once thought the circuit’s effect was limited to spurring the search for, and consumption of, the basics for survival, basics like food and drink. But neuroscientists including Kent Berridge at the University of Michigan, now believe it motivates people to also consume cultural stimuli like music, art—and words.
If the stimuli are promising, the reward circuit fires with dopamine. If they are pleasing, the dopamine spurs the release of natural opioids, including morphine-like enkephalin and marijuana-like anandamide. If they are especially pleasing, the opioids fire up five marble-size “pleasure hotspots” in the brain—producing a bit of bliss. In other words, the neurotransmitters in the circuit drive motivation.
Berridge at the University of Michigan and Morten Kringelbach at Aarhus University in Denmark are pioneers in how the reward circuit functions. They call the dopamine- and opioid-induced pleasure from the circuit “evolution’s boldest trick.”[v] It’s that trick, or that pleasure incentive, that gets people to do most everything.
The science points to a bedrock principle for engaging people when you communicate: Reward them mentally. Don’t aspire to give people just a brain buzz. Aspire to create higher “highs” produced through neural rewards that come from dopamine and natural opioids.[vi]
Eight communication strategies emerge as the most potent in making that happen: Keep communication (1) simple, (2) specific, (3) surprising, and (4) stirring. Then keep it (5) seductive, (6) smart, (7) social, and (8) story-driven. When you use these strategies, the eight Ss, you appeal to people's most primal motivations.
Writing for Impact: 8 Secrets from Science That Will Fire Up Your Readers’ Brains details the science behind these strategies. It then cites over three dozen tactics for implementing them. Here are my favorites.
- Thin the ads: Keep it simple by favoring verbs and nouns—sparing adjectives and adverbs (the “ads”). Instead of “giving Warren a positive review,” “praise” him.
- Rouse senses: Keep it specific by fulfilling the old maxim: “show, don’t tell.” Go beyond the visual, though. Help readers not just see, but taste, smell, hear, and feel.
- Kindle new reactions: Keep it surprising by combining unlike words or ideas—think “perfect storm” or “ heart of darkness.” Readers relish the mashup.
- Have attitude: Infuse your language with enthusiasm. “Write while the heat is in you,” said Henry David Thoreau. Suffocating your emotion slashes comprehension.
- Invent metaphor: Keep it smart with metaphors that highlight distinctions. Bury the bogeyman of “writing with too much style.” Unearth insights with stylish figures of speech.
Thanks to scientists, we have a revolutionary new way of deciding how to write and speak in ways that win people over: Choose words to give people a buzz of action in their motor and sensory circuits. That’s a start. But also choose the words to give them a buzz of neurochemicals in their reward circuit. That creates an engaging finish.
Facebook image: Dragon Images/Shutterstock
[ii] Adolfo M García et al., "How Meaning Unfolds in Neural Time: Embodied Reactivations Can Precede Multimodal Semantic Effects During Language Processing," NeuroImage 197 (2019).
[iii] David A Havas et al., "Cosmetic Use of Botulinum Toxin-A Affects Processing of Emotional Language," Psychological Science 21, no. 7 (2010).
[iv] Kent C Berridge, "Evolving Concepts of Emotion and Motivation," Frontiers in Psychology 9 (2018).
[v] Kent C Berridge and Morten L Kringelbach, "Pleasure Systems in the Brain," Neuron 86, no. 3 (2015).
[vi] For a current review of the role of dopamine in reward, see Kelly MJ Diederen and Paul C Fletcher, "Dopamine, Prediction Error and Beyond," The Neuroscientist 27, no. 1 (2021).