Your brain on narrative

Our emotive selves both drive and are driven by hormones. Feeling stress? Cortisol leaks into your system. On a roller-coaster? Adrenaline injections. Laughing at a joke or feeling comfy at home, here’s a little serotonin. Holding your child, or staring into the eyes of your lover, bloop, here’s a drop of oxytocin. Just completed a puzzle or a project — how about some dopamine. Eat some hot chili peppers? Zip, have some endorphins.

There are lots of ways our bodies react hormonally to our actions, our interpretations of the world, and the influences of those around us. But how about when we read?

If you’re reading a scary novel, are you nervous? Adrenaline activated? Cortisol coursing? What if you’re reading a love scene and you’re turned on? Serotonin sips and some oxytocin offerings? If you read about a major success by a character, they just completed a race or won an election or found their father after a long search — dopamine drip?

My point is, wouldn’t it be natural for us to involve our body’s chemical responses to our reactions and attachments in narrative reading? Whether fiction or non-fiction, if we get attached to characters, if we invest ourselves in their plights, their glories, their failures, won’t we also get the added bonus of hormone release when important events occur within the story?

And just as obvious — if you are NOT getting these jolts of emotion driven by your brain and body’s reaction to what you’re reading — is this a sign that the story lacks in some way?

Is this what we as readers are looking for when we crack open a new book? Can we get that tiny teasing hit of drugs when we read the first five pages or so? Should we expect such a reaction? And what happens halfway through the book when the story ceases to enliven our emotive selves? Do we quit reading?

With this in mind, I suppose, as authors, we should be intentionally striving to write scenes which evoke reaction. Disgust, dejection, elation, adoration, bereavement, triumph — all of these and hundreds more — can keep readers reading. Keep readers addicted to the drugs their bodies are producing when they read our stories.

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