Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Gut Connection

I felt my toe catch on a slight unevenness and my body hurtled forward toward the ground. My only thought was to protect my tender wrist. Next thing I knew, I was surrounded by a cluster of people as I lay face down on the sidewalk trying to move my throbbing head. Through a fog of pain I heard someone ask, "Did anyone call an ambulance?"

As I struggled to rise, to protest I'd be okay, I became aware of blood gushing from my nose and mouth ...

— Pat Cook

Each time I read this passage, I'm affected on a deeply visceral level. I literally feel the pain of smashing into the sidewalk. I experience the terror of hurtling forward. I taste the blood in my mouth. That would not be surprising if those were my words and I had personally tripped and fallen. But I've never fallen that way in my life, and I fervently pray I never do. So what's going on?

According to an article Richard Restak wrote in the Huffington Post, "Our brains were built for feeling each other's pain." He explains, "When we watch another person move, our observations of their movement activates in our own brain same areas that are involved when we make that movement." This effect generalizes to emotion, and based on my experience reading the lines above, it also generalizes to sharing sensations of pain, and we don't even have to witness the event first hand. Simply reading about it bonds us.

This neuroscience discovery has profound implications for those of us who share our writing with others. This explains how others can be affected by and learn from our experience. There is a caveat in this insight. At the same time readers are resonating with your experience, their own memories are triggered, creating a complex mixture of empathy and inference, especially when the story involves decisions rather than simple physical events like the one above. The principle that we can control what we say, but we can't control what the reader understands comes into play.

There are no easy answers for this dilemma and the challenge it poses. Perhaps these tips will bridge the gap:

Use vivid description. In the excerpt above, Pat includes the detail of feeling her toe catch on something and wanting to protect another injury. The taste of blood and desire to be self-sufficient are further telling details. If your experience is less physical, you can include vivid descriptions of emotion such as shame over inappropriate actions or fear of whatever. The same guidelines apply to joyous events like finishing your first 10K in third place and feeling like an Olympic gold star athlete.

Put yourself fully into the scene. Pat continued the story by describing her emotions and perceptions about the situation. She described how she coped with succeeding challenges, and concluded the story with a surprising perspective: She was surrounded with helpful people and love throughout a series of horrible experiences. Rather than feeling beaten down, she felt lifted up. These combined elements of emotion and insight developing into story are keys to activating personal health benefits for you, and perhaps for your readers as well.

Avoid "preaching." When your story includes decisions you made, you'll increase the odds of readers responding with empathy by sticking to reporting facts and feelings and confining reflection to the personal meaning of your experience. Urging others to follow your example may trigger defensiveness and build walls.

If you follow the tips above, your stories will surely impact readers at a gut level. They'll generate empathy and understanding, building strong bonds with readers now and in the future.

Write now: write a story or scene about an intense event in your life. Use vivid description and include your feelings and emotions about the event. Restrict your reflections to personal meaning. As a couple of people to read the story and tell you how it affected them.

Image: Patrick Hoesly

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