6 Podcasts About The Science Of Writing
Here are 6 podcast episodes about the science of writing.
My writing podcast, Death Of 1000 Cuts, mostly features my chatting with fiction authors, and looking at listeners’ first pages. But sometimes I chat with psychologists and scientists, to delve into the mysteries of writing and creativity. You’ll dig these episodes if you want to know a bit more about the dire machinery that grinds beneath the Arts’ pristine facade. I’m proud of all these episodes and people seem to have enjoyed them a lot.
In this episode I chat to Dr Tim Pychyl, psychologist and head of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University, Canada. This is one of the most popular episodes I’ve ever recorded, in terms of impact, and the number of emails and messages I’ve got about it.
Tim has devoted over 20 years to the ‘breakdown in volitional action’ we call procrastination. Since I get more letters about struggling with procrastination than all other creative writing topics combined so I thought it was worth approaching one of the world’s leading experts on procrastination for advice.
We talk neuroscience, specifically the roles of the amygdala and prefrontal cortex in procrastination, and what recent MRI scans of the brains of procrastinators and non-procrastinators have revealed. We talk psychology – what’s going on with procrastinators, what we’re trying to achieve when we procrastinate, and why procrastination fails on its own terms, let alone frustrating us in other ways. We talk statistics – the latest data from various studies all over the world, showing what, verifiably, works and what doesn’t work when we’re trying to reduce procrastination. And to kick it all off we talk semantics – what procrastination is and what it is not, and why being able to distinguish between the two is so essential.
Lots of people have been in touch to say how interesting they found this chat with neuroscientist Adam Green, president of The Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity. He talks about his research into the effects of exogenous neurostimulation on creativity – literally, how zapping specific regions of people’s brains with electricity might help them become more creative. Cyborg authors! Are you ready for the future?
In this episode I chatted with Martin Lotze, neuroscientist at the University of Greifswald, about his research into the brains of writers.
Martin started off studying ‘artistic savants’ – people with incredible capacities to, for example, reproduce an entire scene from memory, and more recently his research has studied how the minds of more neurotypical writers and non-writers operate, using fMRI scans to observe which areas of the brain are activated during the writing process. His fascinating work demonstrates that different parts of the brain – different hemispheres, even – are used by experienced writers and novices when undertaking creative writing.
James W Pennebaker
I still think it’s bananas that I got to speak to James W Pennebaker, one of the most well-respected researchers in his field, whose discoveries have informed hundreds of studies in the decades since he began. We talk about the genuinely astonishing things he discovered about how engaging in expressive writing about personal trauma can improve emotional wellbeing, boost your immune system, and even allow the body to heal physical wounds faster. He goes onto talk about his work with computer analysis to study the seemingly niche area of ‘function word’ frequency, a category of words that accounts for less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our vocabulary yet makes up almost 60 percent of the words we use, words delivered so fast we don’t consciously process them, and how something as innocuous as pronoun frequency can, using his model, predict gender, relative status, and even the likelihood that the writer will commit suicide. It’s mindblowing stuff.
Emily Troscianko isn’t a scientist per se, but her research and scholarship into the effects of reading on eating disorders is hugely valuable and fascinating. She talks with me about the big survey she undertook, and challenges some conventional wisdom around the benefits of ‘bibliotherapy’, and seeing oneself in fiction. Obviously there’s a big content warning here because we do discuss eating disorders and mental health – I think it’s important to discuss these painful, challenging areas, but I don’t want to do any harm while doing so, so please, look after yourself and don’t listen if you’re not feeling up to it today.
Paul J Zak
In this episode I chatted to researcher, neuroscientist and psychologist Paul J Zak about the power of narrative and what goes on in our brains when we get lost in a great story.
We chat about his research into oxytocin and how it affects our decisions, how the brain responds to stories versus events happening in real life, how the physiological costs of paying attention affect the types of story shapes that work best, and how to write the ultimate story that will grip, move and change people. He also gives advice on the kinds of people you must engage if you want your writing to be a hit. As well as that we discuss the purpose of villains, horror, and tragedy.