Assay@NFN15: “The Science of Story: Creative Nonfiction and Cognitive Science”

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 Nancer Ballard, Dave Madden, Matthew Gavin Frank, Sean Prentiss

Why do writing professors tell you what to do (show, don’t tell; orient us with setting; etc.)? Why are these important from a cognitive standpoint?

Nancer Ballard: conducted a survey about what books readers remembered over time and why [see handout]. For her talk, she focused on 3 characteristics: transformation/new insight into world, mystery, and vividity. She discussed 4 cognitive responses that support these:

  1. Sensory perception – how sensory input is processed [see handout for list of senses]
  2. Emotion – sensory info must evoke an emotional response to be encoded as important. Sensory input is processed, we react involuntarily, then we have an emotional feeling (cf Wm James: we don’t cry because we’re sad; we tell ourselves we’re sad because we’ve cried)
  3. Memory/Place – feeling/emotion lead to encoding as memory. Place is implicit in action and time, and essential to narrative – we have no way to process without the context of time/place/action
  4. Inconsistency – attention loves novelty because the brain filters out the “normal” to make space for new experiences which need to be processed

*Note: the brain behaves the same way when it reads something for the first time: you read words (sensory data) on the page, have a reaction, evoke an emotion (suspense, dread)

We complete patterns – what happens next? – for survival, to help make guesses about the future, to make sense of the world. Jumping to conclusions can be efficient, but can also cause problems – narratives are often about those who incorrectly complete a pattern, make an assumption, and the fallout from that. [see handout for CNF examples]

Dave Madden: Patricia Hampl: “what an essay gives you is a mind at work.” Madden asks, what is a mind at work? how does that happen? Cf Kauffman: essay is not just essayist’s thoughts, but the feeling of their movement, and therefore induce an experience of thought in the reader.

  1. Productive Juxtapositioning: artful sequencing of facts, data, memories, etc, so that meaning is created via order or form – how 2 things juxtaposed create a third thing between them, the literary equivalent of “brain cells that fire together, wire together.” “Leap, don’t creep” – don’t do all the expository work of connecting 2 things – just go there and trust the reader to connect them.
  2. Interleaving: switching among an array of things to study results in better long-term comprehension.
  3. Desirable Difficulty: grappling/frustration results in better learning
  4. Segmentation and Digression: tell stories or make points sequentially and recurrently rather than one at a time. Move your reader away from your topic for a time in order to better engage when you return to it. Interleave material – don’t block-sort it.

When drafting, don’t worry about these things! When revising, “leap, don’t creep,” consider digression and segmentation as a strategic move, not just an aesthetic one, and make the essay move as fast as the brain.

Matthew Gavin Frank: wrote The Mad Feast, about characteristic dishes from all 50 states – reactions were either rage (you got it wrong!) or glee (you nailed it!). Why do we feel so passionately about foods associated with a region? Home, food, and place give us a basis from which to understand the world. Taste/smell/texture of food intensely tied to memory, which is wired to place/time. If that’s challenged, our entire worldview encoded in our brains is challenged. Confirmation of this memory = a sense of community. The mouth is our most vulnerable point, our connection to food, how babies first experience the world – food is how we regularly invite the physical world into our bodies.

Sean Prentiss: how the brain perceives time is integral to coding memory. The body manages several clocks, both short- and long-term perceptions. So, how does the brain perceive time, and how can we use that in CNF?

  1. Fight or Flight – everything seems to slow down, because the brain is trying to take in as much info as possible so it can assess threat, so when we encode this memory, it seems slow because of its density of data.
  2. Aging memory – time seems to go faster when we’re older because we’ve had so many experiences – our brain only needs to encode the novel ones, so it skips the more routine memories.
  3. Drug use and perception of time – stimulants v. depressants v. psychedelics

Below, please see handouts for specific strategies and examples of how to manage time in CNF.




Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal. She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

One comment

  1. Thanks Heidi. If anyone is interested in further participating in conversation about either the project to identify what makes books affect people over long periods of time or cognitive neuroscience and writing, feel free to contact me at I’d love to hear from you.


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