Monday, February 21, 2011

Brain Cravings

I'm thinking a lot about why people become interested in things, not just novels but also food, music, and games. Children who have autism tend to be come rigid in their interests, playing the same game or eating the same foods over and over again. As a teacher's assistant working with such children, I often struggle to get one kid to name the letters instead of lining them up by color, or to get another to recognize whole words instead of just repeating the names of letters. Hopefully these kids will someday enjoy reading whole stories.

And then I go home and write fiction for adults. I'm facing the same sort of problem. Some readers insist on the same story and type of story told repeatedly. I work at enticing readers into something new.

Here is what I think is happening. Brains are prediction machines, having evolved over time to analyze patterns and predict what will happen next. They are driven to find out what happens next. Brains which are good at predicting pass on the ability, producing babies with similar brains.

This prediction isn't conscious analysis, but an instinctive drive. Our brains crave patterns and prediction of patterns the same way we crave food, or sleep, or affection. If these patterns aren't available, we create them. Brains with neurological problems blocking their development go after whatever patterns are accessible. The results are often amazing. People missing huge parts of their brains can still adapt and function well. I stand in awe of the brain, particularly the brain of a child, and what it can do.

I believe that a baby playing with a rattle and an adult reading a novel are both engaged in pattern prediction and for the same reasons; brains crave a combination of expectation and surprise.

The baby shaking the rattle doesn't know exactly what will happen, but she has an idea of what will happen and the result delights her. As she goes through the sequence of muscle movement, visual effect, and sound, her brain adapts, rewiring itself to better-coordinated hearing, movement, and vision. It's fun and feels good because it's what the brain needs. When the child gets older, she loses interest in rattles or her interest in them changes. She might move on to exploring rhythm. At this time, her brain has already made the changes and no longer craves the simple pattern of rattle-shaking.

Young brains crave easily predicted patterns. Children are usually picky eaters, liking foods with simple textures and flavors. A baby may like basic rice-cereal but, as a toddler, moves on to various dry cereals or to plain pasta. Children are generally interested in basic flavors--sweet or salty--and like predictable shapes and textures. Good luck trying to convince a toddler that a broken cheese-flavored cracker tastes the same as a whole cheese-flavored cracker.
Children generally dislike complex textures such the texture of broccoli. The buds on broccoli make for texture which is difficult for a developing brain to decode. The texture doesn't make sense.

As a child I preferred my spaghetti sauce to be served separately from my noodles, "next to" not "on top of." The meat as it browned smelled delicious, but when the ingredients were put together, I couldn't taste either the meat or the noodles. Hash still tastes this way to me. I also pulled appart sandwiches, eating baloney separate from bread. I'd lick the frosting off cupcakes before eating the cake. These preparations simplify the flavors of food. Now we call this type of preparation food "deconstruction." Apparently it's the hot new trend in cooking, but children have done it since time immemorial.

As an adult I detest plain noodles. They're just too boring. I don't eat cake unless it's got something unusual-- fresh fruit, mocha filling--or I'm hungry and it's the only food available. I want something interesting on top of my noodles maybe some anchovies or some capers. Definitely some garlic. Maybe fresh garlic sautéed in olive oil until it just starts to caramelize. My brain already knows the taste of noodles. There is nothing else to be learned from eating bland pasta. It wants combinations of flavors and textures: bitter and sweet with smooth. Salty and sour with crunchy.

For the brain to make sense of sensations--hmm similar words--it has to encounter the same pattern repeatedly. The brain will seek to repeat the pattern until the activity becomes boring. How often it needs to encounter a pattern varies from individual to individual. A person who has autism needs to encounter the same pattern many more times than does a person with a typical brain. But whose brain is typical anyway?

I only read one Nancy Drew mystery before I became bored with it. Yet I'm still fascinated by Rudyard Kipling's Elephant's Child. The line "The great gray-green greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever-trees," still tastes good to my brain.

In writing novels I'm attempting to feed the brain a really tasty pattern. I've got to get the mix between expectation and surprise just right. If it's too unusual the story tastes like hash. If it's too predictable it's boring. The same mix won't work for every reader because of variation in individual brains.

Enjoyment of food and of novels isn't entirely alike. Food must feed both the body and the brain. If nothing else is available I'll eat plain noodles, eat them without complaining. But if a novel fails to fulfill the cravings of my brain, I will stop reading.

As a writer, I have a dilemma. Should I limit my writing to simple easily understandable patterns, the equivalent of plain noodles, or should I write patterns which take more sophistication to understand? The blockbuster model of publishing says write plain noodles, make the story understandable to nearly everyone. But that leaves an entire range of readers starving. Simplistic writing isn't adequate to their needs. It's not adequate for my needs as a writer.

I believe if I trying to write plain noodles I should do it with pride, but when I'm driven to write pasta with puttanesca sauce I shouldn't forego the anchovies and capers.

There are those who insist that fiction must follow similar restrictive and arbitrary rules, similar to saying spaghetti can only have marinara sauce. These rules are basically codified personal taste, similar to an autistic toddler announcing that broccoli is yucky and throwing it across the room. Many adults also dislike broccoli, but it's not the fault of the farmer who raised the broccoli, the cook who prepared it, or even of Mother Nature who packed it with vitamins, nutrition, fiber, color, and all that. Broccoli isn't inherently yucky. It's a matter of personal taste, meaning it’s a matter if neurological development.

What can I say to them when they gag on my offering? Yes, people do gag when they expect one flavor and get another. This doesn't indicate that, for example, puttanesca sauce is poorly made. It merely has been tasted by a diner has never encountered red spaghetti sauce other than marinara, and that diner's brain isn't yet ready for that pattern of sensation.


  1. It is tricky--we writers write what we love and then are faced with the enormous task of trying to find publishers and readers.

    Some of us might find our readers the easiest in the scifi crowd, others in the romance crowd. Or maybe the readers for some of us are in the literary group. Some lucky writers may overlap several groups.

  2. Fascinating analysis. Definitely leaves me wanting more variety in my reading (and life) habits.

  3. What a cool concept! I'm one of those people who like a very predictable life, but love to be surprised by my reading!

  4. I'm one who gets bored by the same thing over and over, though, when under stress, then I seek out the predictable. But I tend to lose interest in series that go on and on and on. I can do, maybe four or five books in a series and then I get bored IF there isn't something more than same characters doing same things. I loved the LOST FLEET books (six) and was very much enjoying Linnea's Dock Five.

  5. I like predictability in my life as well, but I like variety in my reading and writing.

    In order to get published, though, as well as keeping readers happy, writers do have to conform to some extent, I think.

  6. Bit of a dilemma, isn't it? Play safe or not? I can't help but write what I like. I don't fit the convention in many ways - too many characters, beta heroes and heroines but if I don't enjoy something, it won't be the best I can do. As for reading habits - well I'll try anything once!!!

  7. Give me spice, give me variety, give me the pad thai and the sauerbraten, the broccoli and the chocolate! (not at the same time)

    Wonderful piece! And I do believe there are hungry brains enough out there to need us all.


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