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Writing and the Brain II

In my last post, I said that the brain works in mysterious ways to shape all our experiences and actions. Today I want to follow up with a story (one of my favorites) about the workings of the brain, and then I’m going to talk about writing.

Two men were walking along Fifth Avenue in New York City. One was an ornithologist (a scientist who studies birds). The other was a businessman. Fifth Avenue is one of the busiest streets in the world, and the men were surrounded by urban noise: engines humming, horns blowing, people talking, feet clattering, brakes screeching.

Suddenly the ornithologist stopped. “That sounds like a wooded warbler,” he said. “I wonder how it got here.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” his friend said. “There’s no way you could hear a bird – much less identify it – in all this noise.”

The ornithologist reached into his pocket and dropped a quarter on the sidewalk. Instantly about 30 people stopped to look down at their feet.

The point, of course, is that long years of study had instilled complex bird-related software into that ornithologist’s brain. In the same way, long years of handling dollar bills and loose change had instilled complex money-related software into the brains of the other New Yorkers on that sidewalk. (Have you ever noticed that even people who swear they’re hopeless at math can calculate discounts in their heads – and always know how much change is due after a purchase?)

So let’s talk about the language software inside our brains.

If you grew up speaking English, you had a vast amount of English language software installed in your head by the time you entered kindergarten – and it continued to become larger and more complex as you grew older.

But there’s a problem: most of the software in our heads is related to talking. And so, when students sit down to write a high school or college essay, they tend to fall into their familiar speaking patterns – with disastrous results. “I guess I’m just not a writer,” they think. They’re dead wrong. The problem is that they haven’t yet made the transition from conversational English to formal writing. To put it another way: they haven’t yet developed the software needed to be effective writers.

Think for a moment about all the ways that talking is different from writing:

  • Casual conversations don’t require punctuation.
  • You don’t have to worry about homophones (sound-alike words like your/you’re and rain/rein/reign).
  • You’re allowed to jump from topic to topic.
  • Sentence fragments are ok.
  • You don’t have to formally introduce an idea and then develop it with examples.
  • You can repeat a familiar word as many times as you like.
  • You can use regional and colloquial words and expressions.

Most important, conversation doesn’t allow do-overs. Once you’ve said it, it’s out of your control.

Avid readers have two huge advantages. First, they quickly develop additional software for writing. Without realizing what’s happening, readers gradually master complex sentence patterns, punctuation rules, sophisticated vocabulary words, and systems for organizing ideas. Second, they feel empowered to make changes in what they write. There’s always a sentence that can be improved, an idea that can be sharpened, a mistake that can be corrected. Non-readers, by contrast, often feel helpless when they’re faced with a writing task. They write as quickly as possible and hand in their work without checking it over. 

* * * * * *

Last month I conducted a grammar workshop for an enthusiastic group of people who work for a local government agency. One participant told me she’d had an English teacher who required her students to memorize all the forms of the verb to be: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being.

Sigh. How is reciting that string of words going to make anyone a better writer? The time spent drilling those words into students’ heads – and memorizing other grammatical jargon – would have been much better spent on reading (or writing!).

If you’re a teacher, what are some strategies you could use to empower your students to feel empowered – and to build on the language software already installed in their heads?

If you’re a parent, what are some strategies you can use with your children?

If you’re a writer, what are some strategies you can use on your own?

Be creative, and have fun!

                                   Wooded Warbler

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Be careful not to confuse presence (“state of existence”) with presents (“gifts”).

It was an honor to be standing in the presence of one of the greatest thinkers of our time. CORRECT

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What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

What Your English Teacher Cover not compressed
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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Writing and the Brain I

Because our town has a busy Lighthouse training center, I often see blind persons who are learning how to safely navigate sidewalks, traffic, and intersections. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to lose my sight – would I ever be brave enough to walk around by myself? And I’m equally curious about what it would be like for a blind person to suddenly regain their sight. Would that be a glorious experience – or a confusing one?

In 1993 The New Yorker published an account of a 50-year-old masseur who suddenly – thanks to advancements in surgery – regained his sight after almost a lifetime of blindness. Noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks described what life was like for “Virgil” both before and after his operation.

It’s a story that’s exhilarating at first and then takes a depressing turn. “Virgil” indeed had his sight restored, but he never was able to see his surroundings the way you and I do. Turns out that “seeing” involves much more than optic sensors and a functioning eye: We need to develop an elaborate brain network that’s capable of interpreting the visual stimuli in front of us. Virgil – blinded as a young child – never had an opportunity to develop that network, and at 50 he was unable to restart the process. He couldn’t judge distances, and he couldn’t make sense of the colors and shapes in front of him. A nose, a hand, a shoulder: how did they fit together? His brain couldn’t figure it out. 

 *  *  *  *  *  * 

Postmodern theory can seem abstract and irrelevant to everyday life, but Virgil’s story confirms what the postmoderns keep telling us: We can never have a totally objective encounter with reality. Our brains have to interpret everything we experience.

And that brings us to writing – and all the hand-wringing despair that many students and newbie authors feel when they face a writing task. Because we use language almost every day of our lives, it’s a shock to discover just how hard writing can be. After a long career as a writing instructor, I can testify to the truly awful essays that many first-year college students write – and to the dismay they feel when I mark up and return their work.

Why is writing so hard for so many people? Blame the brain.

Most of the language hardware in the human brain gets organized and developed in early childhood. By the time children go to school, they’ve mastered many elaborate sentence patterns and grammatical constructions.

But then – as they get older – they learn that writing is different from everyday conversation. Good writers need large vocabularies, a knack for organizing ideas in sophisticated ways, and a familiarity with a complicated punctuation system that has little connection to everyday speech…

…unless you happen to be a voracious reader. My next post will discuss some of the differences between everyday conversation and formal writing and – no surprise – I’m going to suggest that reading (rather than learning sentence diagramming and grammatical theory) is one of the best ways to develop better writing skills.

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