Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Great Brain Game

By Martha Reed

Okay, I know I occasionally go out on a limb and start to discuss a topic that might be a little bit, well, ‘out there’ but an idea started to germinate in my head over a dinner conversation and I can’t stop thinking about it. The original questions were perennial ones for writers: “Where do you get your ideas? and “How do you make stuff up?” and I think I’m on to something.

Bear with me on this one, it goes deep.

The conversation started with the idea that we should raise the national drinking age to 21 because young adults haven’t yet developed the frontal lobe part of their brains enough to recognize the difference between sensible and damaging behavior which has the tragically unfortunate result of binge drinking and death by alcohol poisoning.

A member of the party mentioned a study where teenagers were given CAT scans and then shown a photograph of a cheeseburger, French fries and a shake. Evidently the back half of the teenage brain lit up at the image and the brain registered: I WANT THAT. When a plugged in adult was shown the same picture only the frontal lobe lit up which was supposed to mean that adults know enough to want the bad things but the frontal lobe is there to remind us: WE SHOULDN’T HAVE THAT IT’S BAD FOR US.

Because the conversation mentioned brains and frontal lobes, I started thinking about the research I’ve been doing about serial killers and psychopaths who had experienced damage to their frontal lobes as children and the idea that the damage might have contributed to their development as remorseless killers. The SHOULDN’T DO THAT part never developed. Then I tried to imagine what it might feel like not to use my frontal lobe and that’s when I realized that when I go into my creative writing state it almost feels like I am using a different part of my brain. Here’s a for example: as I write this sentence I feel like I’m using the frontal lobe part of my brain from temple to temple but if I try to access my creative writing mode using my full imagination I feel like I have to set back a bit and use the part of my brain that’s located more centrally between my ears.

I warned you this was going to sound weird.

When I realized that I thought: well, maybe that’s what I do when I write? Have I trained myself as a writer to somehow switch off my frontal lobe to access all my life experiences stored in the back I WANT THAT part of my brain? If I’ve trained the intuitive part of my brain to work in harness, that would explain how I gather my ideas from my life experiences (and all my reading) and then pull it forward into the recognition pattern in my frontal lobe where it all begins to suddenly ‘make sense’. That would also explain why sometimes my characters surprise me the writer with their actions – I didn’t actually ‘think’ of it but at the same time the action makes ‘sense’ because it comes from the plausible background history already stored in my noggin.

Another argument to support this idea is when I’m deep in my writing and the phone rings and I have to answer it – I actually feel like I have to ‘switch gears’ to respond.

I’ve also had people ask me if I’m channeling when I write and I have to answer ‘no’ – mostly because Shirley Maclaine already cornered that market but I have to admit it does sometimes feel like my story already exists and all I’m doing is writing it down. This would be true if the parts of the story were already stored in my backlog of experience or memory and then my brain pieces the ideas together to the point I pull it forward and recognize it as ‘true’. I’ve heard this creative description before from musical composers and oddly enough, mathematicians. I wonder if we’re all doing the same thing: accessing the same trained brain mechanism from different creative perspectives?

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies

uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

Anyway, that’s enough of a brain drain for this hour of the morning. Now it’s time for a little fun. Have you tried the Dancer Brain Test yet? I swear, with a little practice, you can make her turn from clockwise to counter-clockwise and back again. Here’s the link, sorry, you'll have to paste it into your browser:


If you see her turning clockwise, then you use more of the right side of the brain and vice versa. Most of us would see the dancer turning counter-clockwise though you can try to focus and change the direction; see if you can do it!



Gina said...

Wow, Martha, this is pretty heavy for so early in the morning. I'm sitting here trying to feel where in my brain I'm thinking, and I haven't even had my second cup of coffee yet!

martha reed said...

Gina, I agree about the coffee thing. I remember one time at a horse show in Texas I had such an early call I took my cup into the shower with me.

Sometimes you just need it! And not for nothing, it's the only vice I have left. : )

Joyce Tremel said...

Martha, you need to talk to my number two son. He works in a brain research lab at Pitt.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I was fine until I looked at the naked spinning girl. Now my brain hurts and I want a cheeseburger and a shake. I'll skip the fries.

I'm an engineer, I'm left brained. Why is that chick spinning clockwise????

martha reed said...

Wilfred, you made me laugh out loud and I'm at work! This will be fun explaining it to my boss...

PatRemick said...

I think it's my brain that's spinning....Interesting post!

Jenna said...

Clockwise. I can't change her direction, either. And Will, I read the descriptions and decided I'm a left-brainer, too. But yet she's spinning the wrong way...!

Interesting stuff, Martha. Confusing, but interesting.

queenofmean said...

Okay, she started out spinning counter-clockwise. Then clockwise & then back. I think maybe my brain is what's actually spinning.
I'm an accountant, so normally a left-brain kind of person.

Judy Schneider said...

Like queenofmean, I see the dancer spinning both ways. At first glance, she turned counter-clockwise. Then, I shifted my eyes to read the text and she started turning clockwise. Each time I look, she's turning a different way -- kind of freaky! Then again, I am an organic chemist who writes, so I guess that makes sense. (Still, I wish I had some control over her!)

Thanks for a fun post, Martha!

Patg said...

That was a total brain pan 'cook out', and very enjoyable.
If only we could prove just 60 percent of what we think we know about the brain.