- Your brain processes words in part by reenacting their meaning in motor, sensory, emotion, and other circuits.
- Nouns and verbs engage people more forcefully than adjectives and adverbs—and people remember them better, too.
- Instead of running through your points conceptually, "run the show" with details people can see, feel, hear, and touch.
How do you get people's dopamine flowing when you write or speak? How do you hook them neurologically? My last post, excerpted from my new book, Writing for Impact: 8 Secrets from Science That Will Fire Up Your Readers’ Brains, highlighted the first of eight strategies: Keep it simple. This post highlights the second: Keep it specific. When you write with detail, you light a fire in people’s minds.
What happens in your brain when you read “trophy” or “beach” or “nose”? In tenths of a second, your visual circuits light up. And what happens when you read “doodle” or “poke” or “ladle”? Your motor circuits fire. And what happens when you read “pizza” or “chocolate” or “coffee”? Your taste circuits light up. And that brings us to the second secret of engaging readers: Keep it specific.
Psychologists and neuroscientists show that even trivial specifics sway the brain in ways smart people wouldn’t expect. That’s in part because specifics play across the brain in ways we don’t realize. Specific words wake neurons responsible for processing a range of human senses and sensibilities. We know this because scientists have revealed in fMRI scans the telltale glow of multiple brain regions that swing into action.[i]
Specifics generate a sort of cerebral virtual reality. Professional writers know this intuitively, and their work makes this apparent. David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, once depicted the humility of Americans just after World War II. He wrote: “There were no message T-shirts back then, no exclamation points on the typewriter keyboards, no sympathy ribbons for various diseases, no vanity license plates, no bumper stickers with personal or moral declarations.”[ii]
Brooks could have stuck with making his point with concepts: “People at that time didn’t boast as much, air their opinions as strongly, or write with such bravado.” That would have conveyed his message clearly. It’s a solid sentence, succinct and easy to process. But it doesn’t measure up to Brooks’s talent for bringing to bear a catalog of specifics, which jazz a lot more—and more varied—brain circuits.
A Simulation Machine
Scientists call the processing of specifics in multiple areas responsible for senses and motor action “grounded cognition.”[iii] This means that readers mentally simulate the sensations and movements conveyed by words. They engage, albeit in a shadowy way, the same parts of their brains that process the meaning of the specific sensations and movements in real life. A word as basic as “salt,” for example, fires not just language circuits but those for taste.[iv]
In other words, the reading brain does more than translate and retrieve meaning from words as symbols. It reenacts hearing, seeing, smelling, and movement. And it does that job in just one or two hundred milliseconds.[v]
“Effective communication in language,” says Arthur Glenberg, a psychology professor at Arizona State University and a pioneer in demonstrating grounded cognition, “is when the writer is able to induce these [grounded] activities in the reader’s brain. That is, you create simulation and that calls on the readers’ experiences” with sensory, motor, and other actions from earlier in life.[vi]
Grounded cognition can be hard to believe. For decades most scientists didn’t believe it. They thought people’s brains worked like digital dictionaries. The visual regions in the back of the head translated letter symbols and handed off the words to language-processing regions. The language regions, in particular the Wernicke’s area on the left side of the cortex, performed machinelike retrieval of word definitions. From that you understood what people were saying.
For analytical people especially, profiting from grounded cognition may not come naturally. When you sit down to write, concepts often bubble up first. That’s the result of the way many people’s minds work. The specifics of the past morph into the concepts of the present. The old details resist surfacing. It’s as if your mind is saying, “Don’t make me dive into the past for the particulars! Just let me get to the point!”
But research shows that, although storing concepts may be more efficient for the brain in the long term, the details drive more simulation in the present. Recognizing the reader’s appetite for detail is how you win with the keep-it-specific strategy—and aid your success in every other writing strategy because all strategies build on it.
But let’s back up a minute. What specifically does “specific” mean? The straightforward answer is “concrete.” That’s the term cognitive scientists use. Concrete in all parts of speech, nouns and verbs above all. Concrete words in experiments offer an edge over abstract ones for a couple of reasons. The first one is that your brain processes them faster (all else being equal). Scientists in one study found that readers reacted to nouns like “wallet” and “hospital” almost one-tenth of a second faster than “saga” and “rarity.”[vii]
And that aids processing fluency, of course. But another advantage is that readers remember concrete words better.[viii] If you ask people to repeat back a list of words they just read, a mix of concrete and abstract, they remember more of the concrete ones.[ix]
As a writing strategy, “keeping it specific” ranks high in its potential for helping you transform your writing to be more engaging. You do need to put it in a larger context, however. For one thing, concrete words aren’t the only ones that engage readers’ sensory and motor circuits. Abstract ones do, too—just not so directly and often not as much.[x]
If you write with abstractions, you don’t lose out on simulation. You still drive action outside readers’ symbolic language circuits. If you’re a business writer, you could still count on sparking a faint glow of engagement in readers’ motor neurons by writing, say, “We need better leadership in management.” But you’d spark a lot more if you went further: “We need leaders who walk the factory floor and shake hands with new recruits.”
Keeping it specific, like every writing strategy, is also subject to an old principle: Too much of any good thing can become a bad thing. A free-for-all of adjectives, nouns, verbs, and detail makes tedious—not engaging—reading. You have to weigh the pros and cons of each choice of word and phrase.
You ultimately face two choices about specifics: One is precision. How specific is enough? If you’re writing a tech manual on how to sanitize an R&D lab, do you say “clean” or “wipe” or “sponge” or “scour” or “bleach”? If you’re neutralizing an oil spill, do you “pour,” “flood,” or “sprinkle” the waste oil with chemicals?
As Mark Twain said, “A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper, the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.”[xi]
The other choice is quantity. How heavily do you load sentences with detail? When you’re adding ice cream toppings to your verbal sundae, remember that, paradoxically, selectivity can have as much or more impact than detail. With that in mind, here are three tactics to harness the science to win over readers.
Get elemental. To deceive is good, to trick is better, to entrap is best. Choose the most precise meaning with the most specific word. Did you transport new employees or bus green recruits? Did the first responders struggle in the smoke or wheeze from the toxic fumes? Does the new drug create a feeling of instability or make people’s heads swim and the room spin?
Resolve abstraction. Ground abstractions with concrete words. Chief Crowfoot of the Blackfoot Nation defined “life” as follows: “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”[xii] Life, in the hands of Chief Crowfoot, comes off not as abstract. A flash, a breath, a shadow—the details blossom into a reality you can touch, feel, and see.
Run the show! “Show, don’t tell.” That’s one of the oldest dictums in writing. Too many writers, though, don’t grasp its potential to engage. Now that you know the science, you could rephrase the advice: “Run the show, don’t talk about it.”
Author Marc Reisner, writing about water issues in Cadillac Desert, sensitized readers to the rigors of the untamed Southwest desert: “To really experience the desert you have to march right into its white bowl of sky and shape-contorting heat with your mind on your canteen as if it were your last gallon of gas and you were being chased by a carload of escaped murderers.”[xiii]
Now that’s a performance. Of course, there is still the question: Which specifics offer the right reward for your readers? Science doesn’t offer a direct answer. But it does offer a new basis for a decision: What’s the likely simulation?
[i] Tracy Roxbury, Katie McMahon, and David A. Copland, “An fMRI Study of Concreteness Effects in Spoken Word Recognition,” Behavioral and Brain Functions 10, no. 1 (2014).
[ii] David Brooks, The Road to Character (New York: Random House, 2016), 5.
[iii] Vittorio Gallese and George Lakoff, “The Brain’s Concepts: The Role of the Sensory-Motor System in Conceptual Knowledge,” Cognitive Neuropsychology 22, no. 3–4 (2005).
[iv] Alfonso Barrós-Loscertales et al., “Reading Salt Activates Gustatory Brain Regions: fMRI Evidence for Semantic Grounding in a Novel Sensory Modality,” Cerebral Cortex 22, no. 11 (2012).
[v] Markus Kiefer and Marcel Harpaintner, “Varieties of Abstract Concepts and Their Grounding in Perception or Action,” Open Psychology 2, no. 1 (2020).
[vi] Author interview with Arthur Glenberg, May 10, 2022. See also Arthur M. Glenberg, “Few Believe the World Is Flat: How Embodiment Is Changing the Scientific Understanding of Cognition,” Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale 69, no. 2 (2015).
[vii] Roxbury, McMahon, and Copland, “An fMRI Study of Concreteness Effects in Spoken Word Recognition.”
[viii] See Diana Kurmakaeva et al., “Acquisition of Concrete and Abstract Words Is Modulated by tDCS of Wernicke’s Area,” Scientific Reports 11, no. 1 (2021).
[ix] Paula J. Schwanenflugel, Carolyn Akin, and Wei-Ming Luh, “Context Availability and the Recall of Abstract and Concrete Words,” Memory & Cognition 20, no. 1 (1992); and Klaus Fliessbach et al., “The Effect of Word Concreteness on Recognition Memory,” NeuroImage 32, no. 3 (2006).
[x] For recent thinking on simulation of concepts, see Leonardo Fernandino et al., “Decoding the Information Structure Underlying the Neural Representation of Concepts,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119, no. 6 (2022).
[xi] Mark Twain, Essay on William Dean Howells, 1906.
[xii] Wikiquote, s.v. “Crowfoot,” last modified May 14, 2019, 17:44, https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Crowfoot.
[xiii] Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert (New York: Viking Penguin, 1986).