One of the main points that always comes up in our live Critique of the Week sessions is the importance of images in writing. “Show don’t tell” is the mantra of every creative writing workshop, and all it really means that illustration is more emotionally powerful than explanation. This concept seems counterintuitive because it is—shouldn’t a precise description of a feeling convey it better than a visual representation that needs to be interpreted by the reader?
The thing is, we’re not computers. The information we receive from the world isn’t digitized into discrete packets of meaning. We think in something more akin to messy clouds of association, as constellations of neurons that fire together become wired together. If you were to map the way thoughts are constructed, our brain might fundamentally be simile machines—this is like this is like this—and when one thought lights up, everything connected to it starts to glow.
Evolving within the ecological niche that we did, as scavengers looking for fruit in the distance while avoiding snakes in the grass, evolutionary pressure has driven our mental capacity toward more and more visual processing—stealing that capacity from other senses like smell. 60% of the human cerebral cortex is devoted to vision, and 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain are linked to the retina.
If we were dogs the advice would be “smell don’t tell,” but we’re humans, so our cognition is oriented to sight. Because of that, conveying emotion through visual stimulation gets more of our neurons firing and allows us to make stronger associations that translate into a bigger emotional response for the reader.
Researchers at UNSW-Sydney were able to measure “show don’t tell” for the first time this week. They put participants into a dark room and had them read a scary story presented on a screen, using skin conductivity to measure their fear responses. Those with aphantasia—the inability to visualize mental images—showed no physiological fear response, while a neurotypical control group did, demonstrating that it is the visualization within the reader that elicits emotions, not the meaning of the text. Interestingly, the research was inspired by people with aphantasia recounting their difficulty enjoying novels.
So if you want your readers to feel something, show them. And it applies everywhere. Consider the emotional impact of “Build the Wall” to the similar but less visual phrase “Build Back Better”—even if that feeling is a sickness in the pit of your stomach, one is visceral and sticky and the other is not. It’s one of the things that makes Trump such an effective conman—he always uses visuals.
This is also why one of the best memory techniques is to imagine placing the things you want to remember into different rooms of a house. Images use more of the brain, giving them more opportunities to stick.
Anyway, here’s this week’s tiny sciku.