Wednesday, April 8, 2015

What the Little Gray Cells Are Up To

If you have not heard me holding forth about something I learned from listening to RadioLab, you and I have not had enough conversation lately.  Insights from listening to RadioLab come to my lips very often.  In my opinion, it is the best radio program in the universe—a combination of entertainment and information unparalleled in anything else I experience on a regular basis.

The episode I have in mind today, is one called “People Who Lie.”  It analyzes why people lie and reveals why some people are so much better at it than others.  Here is a link a podcast where you can hear the whole story:

To summarize, what neurologists have discovered is that, in addition to little gray cells, we all also have white matter in our brains.  The white matter provides the pathways between one part of the brain and another.  What happens when people lie on the spur of the moment is that several disparate parts of the brain light up and put together a story to tell instead of the truth.!  And voila’!  “My baby brother vomited on my homework.”

Good liars, it turns out, have a lot more white matter than the less skillful fibbers on the planet.   The extra white stuff allows stored images in their brains to link together more often, more creatively, and a lot faster.

As soon as I heard this, I wondered if anyone has ever looked at the brains of fiction writers to see if we have more than the usual supply of white matter.  I would not be at all surprised if we do.  I have heard that in Philadelphia there is a group of writers called The Liars Club.  Makes sense to me.  And there seems to be a scientific explanation for it.

Here’s what my little gray cells think my white matter is doing.

With no outline or serious game plan, I draft my stories fast and furiously.  I set myself a word count goal for each day, every day, and I don’t stop for the day until I have reached it.  I force myself past the mental demons who laugh at the dreck I am producing, and I power along despite my fears of gross plot inconsistencies and jejune character motivations.   I tell myself, that it does not have to be good, it just has to be there.  Then, making it better and better will become the job.

Right now, I am going over the mad first draft of my Tolliver 3, streamed out into the computer between January 1st and March 15th.  As I work it over and try to beat it into becoming a decent story, it seems my white stuff is showing.  With a fair amount of frequency, facts, images, connections show up in the story that come across as quite apt.   Yet I have no recollection of producing them myself.  How could they have gotten there with little or no effort on my part?  All I can think is that they happened and then ran down my arms and out my fingertips onto the keyboard, practically unnoticed at the time.  The white matter did it.

My prejudice is that the best art is like watching Fred Astaire dancing.  It looks effortless.  Almost nothing I ever do is effortless.  But every once in while, there is a precious moment when the little gray cells and the little white cells cooperate and surprise me.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. The brains of writers may be different from the brains of other people, say, lawyers. I was having a discussion of dreams this morning with a lawyer friend who says she seldom dreams, and never in colored images. Full-color images are all I see in dreams, and I dream every night. She said I should ask the other writers whether they dream a lot.

    1. Kate, the sleep doc who treated David for sleep apnea told me that everyone dreams but some people remember their dreams and some don't. I dream vividly too. I think you raise a very interesting question. I wish I knew how to get Radiolab to do a segment on fiction writers' brains. If any.

  2. Annamaria, where does one find radiolab? tstraw

    1. Thelma, you can find the show in question and listen on line at the link in my post. The full archive is here:

      And it is produced and broadcast by the GREAT WNYC.

  3. I just reread your blog and realize that I, also, write stuff that later I have no earthly remembrance of having written!!! I never thought much about it before, as I have been born with many gifts of creativity, in dance, music, abstract painting, , as well as writing. I assumed it came with the package called a life form . This is part of why they call it ah sweet mystery of life! thelma