On Writing and the Neuroscience of Language

I like to say that I never chose writing — it chose me. From the time I was 9 years old, I wrote stories profusely, almost never with the ending in mind, or even the basic roadmap of where I was going — just writing the scenes as they played out in my head moments ahead of time. As I grew older, not having an idea was hardly an excuse, I’d have to churn something out eventually, the way fish need to swim to stay alive. Nor did my favorite comic strips cease publication whenever one of their writers stumbled on a roadblock.

When the stories weren’t being churned out, I was frantically looking to stockpile ideas, knowing I would need a fresh one, soon. While my friends were counting down the days until N64 was released or passing around a video bootleg of last night’s “South Park” episode, I spent my nights determined to come up with a better ending, trying to make this story better than the last. So I went back to reading — not just the usual sci-fi novels or Stephen King titles, but what the writers had to say about writing. They had to know something about the struggle and where they got their ideas. Inevitably, authors struggling to write their first hit amid a flurry of rejection slips became a new-favorite subgenre of mine.

To this day, I still haven’t fully had my questions answered — but I do have the growing awareness that writing is a craft that we’re all working to perfect. In the words of Truman Capote (whose date of death coincides with my birth): “Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.” Obviously, no two of us are alike — and I’m not nearly as prolific as I was 20 years ago. So why are some of us better? More importantly, why do some of us just give up? Something I’ve contemplated at least four times a year.

I recall the words of my former mentor, novelist Deena Linett, who quietly pointed out: “We’re writers because we love language.” We use words the way cinematographers sculpt with light. As I continued to write, I realized that just as important as having my one-sentence loglines for stories was actually finding a style that worked — that set tone and mood — to recreate feelings on paper for someone else to relive as they read.

Deena was 68 years old when I met her, with silver hair and an encyclopedic knowledge of New York’s medical specialists whom she saw regularly, but her sense of hearing was so powerful that she caught grammatical mistakes by simply listening to sentences. She never bothered to read workshop handouts of our stories — she knew when your opener had too many words (the way a pharmacist counts out the dosage in every little capsule). So often did she find herself listening to conversations among strangers in the city streets, she once confessed, that she had to cover her ears.

The processing of language itself actually relies on two regions of the brain, located in both the left and right hemispheres, working in unison as we speak, write, or attempt to meet a deadline. One is the perisylvian cortex of the left hemisphere, known as Broca’s area, which processes the structure of our sentences. Wernicke’s area, the lower posterior portion of the perisylvian cortex, allows us to comprehend the words we hear and use.

Of course, the comprehension is relative to different people, being dependent on our individual thoughts and experiences. Looking into the workings of the brain also presents us with the limitations of the written word — how words can only go so far in representing our thoughts. Some languages do better at this than others, and that’s why every language has phrases whose nuanced meanings can never quite translate — leitmotiv or magnum opus being just two examples.

Fortunately for us, language is one of many systems to make use of semiotics (sign-based direction) — which both Wernicke and Broca’s areas deal with. Words and nonverbal signals are deciphered by two different processes: association by contiguity, that is words you associate with one another (like the relationship between nouns and adjectives), and association by similarity, involving the way we associate synonyms of words, or put items into groups.

So where does this love of language come from? Since I can remember, there’s always been a prevailing idea that when we’re younger, we can absorb language more easily, as we first learn how to talk. Allegedly, at least in the United States, we’ve been going about teaching foreign languages entirely wrong — should we not start exposing children to other languages in the primary grades? In fact, according to a recent study at Penn State University, learning a new language changes your brain at any age. The study taught Mandarin Chinese to 39 volunteers and scanned their brains over the course of six weeks.

“The brain is much more plastic than we thought,” said Ping Li, a linguistics professor and the study’s lead researcher. The volunteers were of varying ages, but even those who were older showed significant signs of improvement. Among the benefits were an increase in the density of white and gray matter in the brain. White matter conceals the axons that send nerve impulses throughout the body, particularly across the brain’s memory centers. Gray matter is the connective neural tissue making up the brain regions associated with memory and emotion formation, muscle control, and sensory perception. The gray matter is often thicker in bilingual people at the brain’s inferior parietal cortex, and this buildup can occur rapidly over a fairly short span of time. White matter serves to bind these regions together in the brain, and is the tissue most vulnerable to dementia.

Where does the belief that children can learn a language much more rapidly come from? Neuroscientists and linguists alike remain unsure. Some children may in fact be genetically predisposed to neuroplasticity in the perisylvian region of the brain, which makes absorbing new words and phrases easier — or, maybe, this capacity for learning may be due to children’s immersion in other languages at an early age. It could be that neural circuitry in the brain has not yet committed to the child’s native language, and by default, they absorb more than someone their age normally would.

I would imagine that the overwhelming majority of writers are products of their environment — either people who could craft that experience for others to live through, or those seeking an escape. We question where the ideas come from, but rarely give a thought to where writers come from. Deena spent much of her life in Florida before relocating across the river from Manhattan, which seems to be the East Coast’s mecca for writers and filmmakers.

The voices of Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker, the Mankiewicz brothers, all originated here — in a city that today is home to about 800 different languages, some of which are no longer spoken in their native countries. Many of these writers grew up speaking, or hearing, a second language at home, and came to learn a number of phrases that didn’t quite translate over into English. The skills needed to acquire a new language are a significant exercise for the brain in syntax and phonology, as well as building vocabulary and semantics, and in each language is a different way of seeing the world. The lack of neutrality in language probably haunted not a few of them — an existential matter of trying to find those moments that we don’t yet have words for.

This article was originally published in Brain World Magazine’s Winter 2017 issue.

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