The Bug in Your Brain

David Swinney was a cognitive psychologist and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of California in San Diego. Through experiments in his laboratory, he showed that when you read the word bug, for example, even if its meaning is made clear by context, you will also call up other meanings, such as trouble with a computer, a secret recording device that a spy might use, and even the Volkswagen beetle. You will also call up physical (i.e., emotional) associations with those things. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, wrote, “When we recall an object… we retrieve not just sensory data but also accompanying motor and emotional data.” Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, put his finger on that concept when he described semantics as being “about the relation of words to emotion: the way in which words don’t just point to things but are saturated with feelings, which can endow the words with a sense of magic, taboo, and sin.”


But if you have not read about and stored those meanings, or if you have not had moving experiences of your own to give associations to the words, then what you retrieve will not have that same depth and variety of meaning. Having emotional experiences in life, along with reading a great deal, will forge the connections among words and combinations of words and their underlying emotional meaning. And that is also why effective writing may be characterized as much by what is left out as by what is stated explicitly.


Maryanne Wolf, the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, wrote that “Reading is… enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.”


In the act of reading, you must first detect the physical form of a word on the page. You bring those abstract symbols into the visual cortex for processing, and then, as I said, send those symbols to the angular gyrus, where they are decoded into a spoken word. At the same time, the words that have come before it in the sentence have to be held in working memory while all the possible meanings and associations with the new word (memories, emotions, previous experiences) are compared to and integrated with the text that you’ve already read. Since reading is not a linear process, the eye will sometimes shoot forward to incorporate what’s coming next. As Wolf put it, “The richness of this semantic dimension of reading depends on the riches we have already stored.”


In other words, what the reader knows will determine how he reads, what he can comprehend, and what impact a given piece of writing is going to have on him. That is why my students’ writing improved when I told them to write whatever they were going to write as a letter to a close friend. At last, they knew who was on the other side of that conversation. They understood how that person would read something, what the associations would be. That knowledge freed them to use their own voices.