Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Writer's Brain - and Heart

Not long ago, I took a writerly side trip. You know how it goes. You’re getting back to your novel after a few too many days away for celebrations and family and a whole lot of other things that matter a lot, plus a few that only matter a little but still manage to snag your time, and you’re trying to get into the swing of your narrative because you know if you get to a certain spot you’ll be truly engaged and the story will carry you off the way you hope it will carry your future readers, but that spot teases and hides till you reach a little epiphany: it’s time for some research.

I won’t go into how and why I ended up researching prehistoric humanoids with over-sized brains, but it did get me thinking, not only about how to use the information in my story but how much nicer it might be if writers had the generous 25% bonus brain of a Boskop.

I stumbled on the Boskops in an excerpt from the book Big Brain by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, reprinted in the December 28, 2009 issue of Discover magazine. These neuroscientists believe that skulls unearthed in Boskop, South Africa in 1913 come from a giant-brained group that flickered, sputtered, and died off approximately 10,000 years ago.

Lynch and Granger contend that in relation to their large cranial capacity, the Boskops had small, childlike facial features reminiscent of…well, maybe you've caught one of those Twilight Zone marathons?

Extrapolating on potential brain capacity, the authors believe these hominids may have boasted IQs averaging 150 and stretching to 180, not to mention an “inconceivably large” frontal cortex.

“While your own prefrontal area might link a sequence of visual material to form an episodic memory,” they write, “the Boskop may have added additional material from sounds, smells, and so on. Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church.”

The Boskops were a tad pre-Paris, but you get the idea. Higher IQ, heightened sensory memory. If only we writers had Boskop brains. Then there’s this:

“Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.”

If writers got three wishes, surely this would one: to imagine more deeply, while knowing the narrative costs of following one thread over another.

But there’s a downside to this super-sized thinking. Lynch and Granger speculate that aside from the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies, the Boskops may have been overwhelmed by their own potential and frustrated by their inability to make good on it. And there is that little extinction problem.

More important than wishing for long-lost genes is doing the best with what you’ve got, the way . pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly did. An aspiring poet, Lilly attempted but never achieved publication in Poetry magazine. Undaunted, she applauded the positive tone of her rejections and, in 2002, donated $100 million to further the magazine’s mission of advancing poetry.

The Boskops may have us beat when it comes to brains, but our hearts – well, that’s another matter altogether. In this season of giving, consider the many ways you can open your hearts to others within the literary community.  Recommend books you love; every author appreciates sincere word-of-mouth praise. Mentor an emerging writer. Donate your time, talents, and cash to a literary nonprofit like 49 Writers. Attend readings, signings, and other literary events. Support the innovative efforts of other writers on crowdsourcing sites, in journals, and on blogs.

When you finish a book, take a minute to leave your thoughts at online sites like Goodreads and Amazon. You’ll be giving the gift of social proof while helping readers find books they’ll enjoy. Like, comment, and share. Email writers to let them know you enjoyed their books. The few minutes you take to write your email will multiply into days (if not weeks) of encouragement for the author. 

Just yesterday I received this from a reader: 

That book blew me away! Thank you for it. Write more. Soon. I'm greedy . . . At this point I'm a raging fan! 

Sent from an iPhone, the note took only seconds to write. But what a gift. Never mind the size of my brain; my heart is warmed beyond compare.