Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What the caveman saw--lessons from a 17,000 year old blog post

 In 1940, four teenagers and a dog named Rocket stumbled into a warren of caves in southwest France. Inside, they discovered Paleolithic man’s most elegant blog, the Lascaux Cave Paintings.
When I googled the term, “Lascaux Cave Paintings”, the legend below the search box showed over 175,000 results. If the Lascaux art is a pre-literate kind of blog, then it must be the all-time, most upon commented blog.
What is it about these animal, human and abstract images that compels our attention? What did the Cro Magnon storyteller-artist know that we don’t? And can we use Alley-Oop’s technique to enhance the quality and popularity of our own storytelling?
The answer comes from an unlikely source, a small, brown macaque monkey with a hairless pink face that wanted a peanut.

You’ll find the legume loving monkey in the late 1980s, about a half century after the Lascaux discovery. It’s a time when women dress fashionably in power suits—big shoulders with big hair. Men sport the Miami Vice look, and, sadly, mullets. Drive ten hours east to Parma, Italy. Find your way to the university research laboratory of Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti. There you’ll spot the macaque, amid a tangle of computers, microscopes and arcane gizmos with unpronouncable names. Electrodes, pasted to his skull, trail wires to a monitor like a simian bridal veil.
Dr. Rizzolatti was measuring the primate’s brain activity to understand the role of neurons—nerve cells that carry information to and from the brain. Rizzolatti’s goal was modest—he wanted to learn which specific neurons fired when the monkey reached for a peanut.
Another round of testing was about to begin when the monitor’s alarm buzzed—an alert cued to sound when the monkey reached for the peanuts. But it was Dr. Rizzolatti, not the monkey, going for the goobers. This was an “Aha!” moment. Rizzolatti realized that the monkey’s “reach for a peanut” neurons fired simply because the critter watched someone else reach for the treat.
Scientists dubbed the nerve cells that fired mirror neurons. They fire not only when we perform an action but also when we see someone else perform the action. About twenty percent of our neurons are mirror neurons and many experts believe that their appearance is related to the explosion of human language and culture some 75,000 years ago.
Understanding a bit about mirror neurons can make us better storytellers. What the Lascaux cave artists did is exactly what you do when you write or tell a damned good story. You paint a picture of an experience, fashioning words on a keyboard rather than daubing paint on a cave wall. The word picture causes the reader’s mirror neurons to fire. She feels exactly what you are feeling. Author and audience share a biological experience to complement the literary one.
When Paleolithic storytellers donned pelts or painted themselves in the guise of animals, they wanted to look like the subjects of their campfire stories. Intuitively, they happened onto the neurobiology of a compelling story.
The action of mirror neurons extends beyond the campfire. An amputee can sometimes relieve the phantom pain in a missing limb by watching the limb of another person being massaged. When an athlete takes a nasty spill, spectators wince.  A lack of mirror neurons, experts now believe, may be the cause of autism, the condition characterized by difficulty in forming social relationships. 
Mirror neurons are most active with face-to-face observation. But reading can fire them. Science writer and deputy editor of Time magazine James Geary told me, “Neuroimaging studies show that when we read or hear stories, we mentally simulate the action described… Many of the brain areas active while reading are also active when we actually take part in or observe similar situations in real life.”
What’s this got to do with successful storytelling? Everything. The more word pictures you create, the more your reader experiences what you feel. Writing coaches beg us to create word pictures. They say, “show, don’t tell”. The researchers’ findings explain why this is crucial. The reader must see the action for her mirror neurons to engage. No word picture means no visual experience for the brain. That means no mirror neurons firing, no shared biological experience.
The implications are staggering. To write without word pictures is to ignore millenia of storytelling success and to create a “So what?” tract fated for the slush pile or delete key.
Look at this blogpost as an example. Compare your reaction to a visual phrase like, “a small, brown macaque monkey with a hairless pink face,” with, “a condition characterized by difficulty in forming social relationships.” Not only does the first example carry more oomph, but scientists say that reading it triggers something in your brain that was triggered in mine.

Science makes art fun for me. Know why something works, and I believe that you can better your craft.  I won’t guarantee 175,000 comments to your own blog, but I predict that you and your readers will enjoy your writing even more.
Like the four French teenagers and Rocket the dog at Lascaux, I’ve stumbled into my own warren of caves, filled not with primitive art, but with the science that explains why some writing is so darned compelling.
What about you? Do you have a good story that’s been spiced up by mirror neurons? Comments? Do say.

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