On Writing and Neuroscience With Livia Blackburne

On writing and neuroscience. How the brain impacts your writing with Livia Blackburne.

Livia Blackburne is a neuroscience graduate student at MIT, conducting research on the neural correlates of reading. She also writes fantasy stories for young adults and blogs at ‘A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing‘.

In this podcast, you will learn:

  • How Livia has blended neuroscience with writing in her own career. Cognitive neuroscience is at the intersection of psychology and the study of the brain.
  • On the left brain/right brain separation and whether this is a myth. Being able to see inside people’s brains with scans is interesting when you can also read their words and see the detail of their thoughts.
  • How science writing and fiction writing help each other e.g. clean prose. How Livia blends these kinds of writing.
  • On writing methods. For non fiction, progressive outline approach where you just keep adding things vs fiction writing which is more like making a movie in your head and then writing it down.
  • Brainstorming methods for writing novels. On writing scenes and how effective that is. Fiction tips also help to liven up scientific or business writing.
  • Some interesting studies in neuroscience that can help writers.
  • How the brain processes metaphor. The brain understands abstract through concrete e.g. physical warmth transforms into emotional warmth. How can we use this in our writing, incorporating it in terms of showing, not telling.
  • On creativity – the deliberate and spontaneous pathways. The former is for achieving goals and directed activities and the latter about unstructured brain time, when ideas can come out of the blue. When relaxing, free associations can help the spontaneous state. Understanding what kind of brain state is the best can help you achieve more. Read the article on Problogger.
  • We discuss ways to get into the creative state – here’s my article on alcohol and writing.
  • Going to conferences and learning new things can help improve your writing. Consuming and producing can help you learn.
  • How science embraces criticism. How this can help us as writers dealing with criticism. Failure is par for the course and most of science is about being proved wrong so distancing yourself is a good way to approach it. If you have a chance to change things after the criticism, then it is all good. Writing is an art, not a science. Not everyone is going to like your work but there is a lot of space in creativity for everyone’s ideas.
  • We discuss ‘The Hunger Games‘ and YA crossover and why the series is so good. Improving our own characters after learning from how Suzanne Collins does it. Both of our novels will come out in 2011.

You can find Livia at her site ‘A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing‘ and also on twitter @lkblackburne

On other brain topics, this is a fantastic video with Jill Bolte Taylor who had a stroke and after her recovery, wrote a book about the experience.

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  1. says

    I listened to this Podcast and then listened to one of your earlier Podcasts by Roger C Parker. What a contrast!

    I did learn something from this podcast but probably not what you were expecting me to learn.

    I found Livia to be a very difficult guest. Her answers were very short and sweet and I sensed a theme of nervousness throughout the entire episode. Compare this to Roger. Words just flowed from his mouth. You didn’t have to do any work and the listener received a vast amount of important information and detail.

    I have learned to choose my future Podcast guests (if I ever have any?) wisely and to make sure that the episode will flow and not uncomfortably stutter.

    Sorry but this is how the episode made me feel.


    • says

      Hi Lee,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Roger C Parker is an interviewer himself with thousands of interviews under his belt. I interviewed him when I had just started the podcast so perhaps I was the novice there. Did you notice I had improved – or perhaps I didn’t speak that much?!
      My podcast is meant to be somewhere I interview people who interest me, not only for professionals. I have been following Livia for so long online and have a degree in psychology myself, so I was fascinated to hear about the neuroscience side. I really enjoyed our chat and others did get useful information from it too as we have found on twitter.
      I want to support authors on their journey, so I will continue to have different types of people on the show. Each is a different experience which is what keeps me doing it. I will stop doing it the day I stop learning myself.

      Thanks, Joanna

  2. says

    Lee, I totally know what you mean! I haven’t yet gathered up the nerve to listen to the podcast myself because I expect it to be rather painful. But interviewing is definitely something I’ll have to do if I continue on this author path, so I’m very grateful to Joanna for giving me this chance to get my feet wet. I hope you were able to glean some interesting information from the podcast despite the awkwardness of delivery, and hopefully by the time we cross virtual paths again, I’ll be more eloquent :-)

    • says

      Hi Livia,
      I really enjoyed our chat and hope you will listen to it. I thought it was lovely. I learnt a lot myself and that’s basically why I do these podcasts. You weren’t selling anything like most people I have on which makes you doubly special, someone willing to give their time with no reward. Thank you again for being on the show.

  3. says

    I just posted a link to this interveiw on my blog. It was fantastic. I know what the poster above means about it being different. However, I took it completely differently. Often, scientists speak more methodically and more concisely. You won’t find them spouting off with words they will have to take back later because they were just “running at the mouth.” Personally, if I listened only to podcasts of people who were all super-polished, it would be a turn-off for me. That’s not the real world. I like real people, and Livia is real!

    It was a fabulous interview. Lots of great information. In fact, I have applied it already. I am in the editing process of my memoir. It is the book of a lifetime for me and will come out next year. For many reasons, it has become a difficult process. Going for a walk, has been revived in my life. And I’ve already seen success. I’d never heard the research behind why it works for writers, although I’d heard many writers talk about it. Allowing ourselves, as writers, to relax sometimes feels like we’re wasting time. But clearly, given your research here, it is not. It’s an important part of the writing experience.

    Thank you for a fabulous interview, once again! Livia was a great guest to have!


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