- If you seek writing inspiration from your muse, tune your senses to the whispers of your reward circuit.
- Fulfilling the reward circuit’s core desires for consuming information will make your writing more engaging.
- By asking eight core questions, you can respond to the eight core desires of your muse.
“May the muse be with you.” How many times have you recited that line when encouraging others struggling with how to write something? How often have you yourself wished you could channel your muse to make the right words flow?
In Greek mythology, the muse of prose is Calliope. If you think of her as your inspirer, how can you get her to speak up? How can you discern what she says with enough clarity to engage people?
Having reviewed hundreds of cognitive neuroscience and psychology papers for my recent book,1 my finding is that your muse has a more tangible basis than you think. She’s not in the ether or on Mount Olympus or flitting around like Tinkerbell. She sits in your head.
Your muse speaks to you through the brain’s reward circuit. That circuit gets turned on by a host of universal human desires. When it comes to communicating, it gets fired up by a set of desires for consuming information.2
When you turn those desires on, you motivate readers to start and keep reading. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing an email, novel, essay, speech, or love letter. If you appeal to and fulfill those desires with the right verbal stimuli, you engage your reader.
What are the desires? What motivates readers to follow your words? My research shows there are at least eight. Each one tempts and induces people to consume information. When you respond to each verbally—as great writers have through the ages—you respond to the secrets that give your writing impact.
Responding to those desires means that you keep your writing simple, specific, surprising, stirring, seductive, smart, social, and story-driven. I call these the 8 Ss. Practicing use of each of them, as research cited below confirms, correlates with robust reward circuit firing in readers’ minds.
That firing will jazz the brains of people you’re communicating with, which means the reward circuit will first release dopamine. That drives people to pursue more of what you’re saying. The dopamine will, in turn, drive the release of morphine- and cannabis-like neurochemicals—so long as you’re adeptly channeling Calliope.3
The desires and their fulfillment—giving your readers successive sips of that muse-inspired neurochemical cocktail—acts to keep people engaged.
8 Ways to Connect
The good news is that these desires fall well within your normal comfort zone for writing. Calliope simply challenges you to keep them front of mind. Here are eight questions to prompt you to do so:
- Simple: Can I improve my “processing fluency”? A host of evidence suggests that making language processing easy drives reward.4To start on this path: Compose with shorter words and sentences. Does this more-accessible language please?
- Specific: Will specifics spur mental “simulation”? Simulation triggers the reenactment of real life in sensory and motor neurons.5 It also fuels the reward circuit.6To start: Insert more details of smells, sounds, sights, textures, and movement. Do these concrete words please?
- Surprising: Will choosing unexpected words pleasingly “violate” predictions made by the hippocampus?7 Violations signal to us (our brains) that the words give us a chance to learn, which drives the reward circuit.8To start: Try combining a few unexpected words or nonroutine phrasings. Does saying an old thing in a new way resonate?
- Stirring: Can I arouse the amygdala with emotion and, in turn, the reward circuit?9To start: Try a few words with deeper or “loaded” emotional connotations. Does putting zeal in your prose please? In head and heart?
- Seductive: Can I spark people’s anticipation by foreshadowing what’s coming? Anticipation drives extra rewards.10 To start: Try topic sentences that promise a clearer payback. Does an up-front promise of good stuff tempt readers to stick with you?
- Smart: Can I elicit insights beyond the ones evident in my information?11To start: Redouble your efforts to spark “a-has.” Does one-upping your initial insight please?
- Social: Can I connect personally with readers and feed the reward circuit’s desire for social connection?12To start: Reveal a few of your traits or vulnerabilities. Does opening yourself up give readers a sense of your authenticity?
- Story-driven: Can I invoke a story to synchronize my brain circuits (and reward circuit) with my readers’?13To start: Introduce a character in a fix. Does even a piece of a story drama—a human in trouble and aching to improve—grab readers?
What, overall, do these eight questions do for you? They get you to respond to a set of universal desires hardwired into the brain by evolution. Hardwired into your brain and your reader’s brain. Getting closer to understanding the processing of these desires is how you hear the whispers of Calliope. That’s when you get the muse “to be with you.”
1. Bill Birchard, Writing For Impact (New York: HarpersCollins Leadership, 2023).
2. For a detailed description of how the brain processes useful information through the reward circuit (in this case, visual information), see Flavia Filimon et al., "The Ventral Striatum Dissociates Information Expectation, Reward Anticipation, and Reward Receipt," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2020).
3. For an easy review of the workings of the reward circuit, see Morten L Kringelbach and Kent C Berridge, "The Joyful Mind," Scientific American 307, no. 2 (2012).
4. For example, see Piotr Winkielman et al., "The Hedonic Marking of Processing Fluency: Implications for Evaluative Judgment," The Psychology of Evaluation: Affective Processes in Cognition and Emotion 189 (2003).
5. Many experiments confirm that specifics drive simulation. For one fun example, see an experiment that asks people to read, among other texts, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: Rutvik H Desai et al., "Toward Semantics in the Wild: Activation to Manipulable Nouns in Naturalistic Reading," Journal of Neuroscience 36, no. 14 (2016).
6. Filimon et al., "The Ventral Striatum Dissociates Information Expectation, Reward Anticipation, and Reward Receipt."
7. Among other regions, the hippocampus detects surprise. See Jörn Alexander Quent, Richard N Henson, and Andrea Greve, "A Predictive Account of How Novelty Influences Declarative Memory," Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 179 (2021).
8. Elsa Fouragnan, Chris Retzler, and Marios G Philiastides, "Separate Neural Representations of Prediction Error Valence and Surprise: Evidence from an fMRI Meta‐Analysis," Human Brain Mapping 39, no. 7 (2018).
9. As one example of the effect of emotion, see Vincent D Costa et al., "Emotional Imagery: Assessing Pleasure and Arousal in the Brain's Reward Circuitry," ibid. 31, no. 9 (2010).
10. Scientists call this “anticipatory utility.” See Kiyohito Iigaya et al., "The Value of What’s to Come: Neural Mechanisms Coupling Prediction Error and the Utility of Anticipation," Science Advances 6, no. 25 (2020).
11. Research on the effects on the reward circuit come from experiments with word puzzles. See, for example, Jasmin M Kizilirmak et al., "Learning of Novel Semantic Relationships Via Sudden Comprehension Is Associated with a Hippocampus-Independent Network," Consciousness and Cognition 69 (2019).
12. For a good review of the link between social connection and reward, see Prabaha Gangopadhyay et al., "Prefrontal–Amygdala Circuits in Social Decision-Making," Nature Neuroscience 24, no. 1 (2020).
13. Stories fire the brain-wide default mode network, including the reward circuit. See, as an example, Jonas T Kaplan et al., "Processing Narratives Concerning Protected Values: A Cross-Cultural Investigation of Neural Correlates," Cerebral Cortex 27, no. 2 (2017).