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This is a translation of a German article published in 'technische kommunikation', tekom's professional magazine for technical communication and information development. For more information visit www.tekom.de
Five lessons for brain-friendly writing
Neuroscientists are trying to solve the question: What happens in our brain when we read? Which linguistic means affect us? When is a text comprehensible? They are confirming longstanding rules with their modern imaging methods – and delivering new, startling rationale.
Technical writers deal with language every day. They have internalized rules for clear, comprehensible writing. Now and again they will however ask: Why is it so actually? Is there a scientific reason for the rules for comprehensible writing that have been known for centuries? The neurosciences have also dealt with comprehension of texts in the past years – and are providing scientific explanations for the writing rules for the first time. Neuro-scientific research namely substantiates: There are good reasons for using a gripping language, because simple words in clear sentences trigger the greatest impact in the human brain.
Our knowledge about how language is processed by the brain has grown enormously in the past decades. We can see the brain when speaking, reading and understanding language through imaging methods. Two methods are primarily involved here: First, the functional magnetic resonance tomography with which the increased activity of neurons in the respective areas can be made visible. Scientists approximately know which words or word groups trigger an activity at which position in the brain. Specific areas of the brain are typically involved in their own tasks, such as processing emotions or sequencing of character strings. This allows identifying whether a text awakens pleasant or fearful feelings for instance, or whether it needs particular effort to understand a long sentence.
The second process is electroencephalography, better known by its abbreviation EEG. Brain waves are measured in this method. It is possible to identify, for example, the point in time when a sentence is understood while reading. Five lessons can be drawn for all those who write professionally from the insights of neuroscientists.
Why we speak
It is our capability to speak that has made human culture possible at all. Processing of language is an unbelievable accomplishment of the brain. It has to first pick up the incoming acoustic signals and process them in the auditory cortex. It filters out the surrounding noise and concentrates on what was said. Then the brain must differentiate the sounds carrying meaning from each other – and identify variants in the accent.
Babies learn this at the beginning of their language acquisition, since all said and done, grandma speaks differently from mom, and dad has a deeper voice than the aunt. The sounds carrying meaning (morphemes) must be recognized by the brain as words, compared with known patterns and their meaning must be referred from so called mental lexicons. After that, the brain must recognize the function in which that word is found in a network of several words and what role it has for the meaning of what was said. This language processing takes place in the Wernicke area found in the rear part of the left temporal lobe.
Variety through combination of sounds
Our genetic relatives, the primates, communicate with about 40 different sounds. Each sound has a meaning. This means, the vocabulary of a primate includes about 40 words. The number of sounds (phonemes) that a human can usually form and differentiate is just as big. But he can say infinitely more with them, because he can put together combinations of them – and combine these into sentences, of which however only a part makes sense respectively. Linguists speak of syntax. Only humans possess the capability of building and processing it. Our cousins, the Neanderthals spoke only a proto language as per the current knowledge of paleoanthropologists.
Organized like in a supermarket
A person with average education has a vocabulary of between 30,000 and 60,000 words. These words are saved in his brain. They are however not organized alphabetically as in the Oxford English dictionary. Rather they are placed next to each other as in a supermarket. There is a section for cleaning materials, one for baked goods, a refrigerated sections etc. In the refrigerated section you can find meat products at one position, milk products at another and these are in turn organized in cheeses, butter, fresh milk etc.
It is possible, that in specific forms of Aphasia (speech disorder), which occur due to brain damage from stroke for instance, individual areas fail. Persons affected by it can speak normally, but they cannot recall the words for types of fruits or the verbs for motion anymore. It is as if a section of the supermarket has been closed.
Lesson one: Consider the priming of the words!
Our brain consolidates words into groups by meaning. A person talking with his neighbor about football recalls many names of players and technical terms during the conversation. When he is in the middle of a conversation about car repairs and anyone asks him about a football player, he will usually hesitate. In experiments, even the most avid football fans had trouble naming known players right away, while they were mentally working with something else at that time. They were in another section of the supermarket. Scientists call activating neighboring words in the brain as priming (or use the German word “Bahnung”).
Priming is an unconscious process. Subjects were shown the word “cake” in an experiment for a few dozen milliseconds – this is such a brief time that one does not consciously perceive it. Nevertheless, the participants could recognize and process words such as “sweet” or “pastry” quicker. At the same time, words release certain feelings. Arthur Jacobs, a psychologist from Berlin found in a research project at the Humboldt University, that “love”, “freedom”, “being happy”,, “fit” and “brilliant” [Liebe“, „Freiheit“, „freuen“, „topfit“ und „brillant“] created very positive feelings in German speaking subjects. “Destroy”, “heartless”, “dead” and “war” [„Zerstören“, „herzlos“, „tot“ and „Krieg“] lead to the most unpleasant emotions. These are terms that are rather seldom used in relation to user manuals. But it is important for technical writers to know: Words are not neutral. Each word bearing meaning, that you use, triggers an emotion in the readers or listeners.
Lesson two: Be concrete!
Something differentiates the thought process of our brain from the structure of the supermarket: Usually each individual section has a signboard there. They are labeled as “Milk products”, “Cleaning material” or “Baked goods”, i.e. abstract generic terms.
In our brain abstract words are saved at a different location from concrete ones. This is as if one gets a layout plan of the supermarket with generic terms at the entrance. Anyone looking for something specific must first go there. The same holds true for words in our brain. First, try to think of “fruits”. You will not be able to do it. You cannot think of “fruits” – you will probably recall specific fruits: apples, pears or bananas.
This leads to the second lesson for writers: Our brain appreciates when we are specific. “Livestock unit” does not trigger neuronal fireworks, but “cow” does. When we create more pictures while speaking, it leads to more regions of our brain getting activated – even those in the right side of the brain that have nothing to do with understanding language. Even in technical texts readers prefer specifics above abstracts.
Lesson three: Use familiar words!
Let us assume, the stretch between Rathausplatz in Hamburg and Marienplatz in Munich corresponds to the history of Homo sapiens gifted with language. A person wants to travel this stretch from the north to the south. When he reaches Augsburg, it is the first time that humans have given their language a written form. When he reaches the main station, general alphabetization has begun in the European industrial nations.
Our brain cannot have adjusted to reading in this short time. To be clear: Man is not made for reading. It is proof of our amazing mental capabilities and a powerful achievement of our brain, that everyone reading this here has mastered it, the prior fact notwithstanding. Neuroscientists assume that the skills of the brain used for reading are those that were actually intended for tracking.
Reading, like understanding language, is a very complicated process. First the eye perceives the flow of alphabets. It fixes them for a very brief moment and then jumps on. These jumps of the eye are called saccades. They last for between 170 and 350 milliseconds. When the brain has noted a word for its meaning, the eye jumps to the next one.
In case of words that are familiar to us, the saccades are shorter, for unknown and long words they are longer. The eye also jumps back more often in case of difficult words and complicated sentences – which makes the matter more laborious. This leads to the third insight for writers: We can read texts with familiar words quicker and more easily.
There is another argument that speaks for primarily using familiar words in texts. There are two types of reading, at least with our so called phonographic writing systems. A script that reflects sounds, e.g. the alphabet, is called phonographic. In contrast, there are logographic scripts, such as the Chinese pictorial script. The Chinese read a word by identifying a picture. The brain immediately accesses the mental lexicon. A large part of our reading is based on the same principle, even when we are working with alphabetical scripts. We recognize the words as symbols. This is the reason why we understand simple texts even when only the first and last alphabet of its words are correct, while the rest are interchanged: “Accordnig to a stduy by an englsih uvineristy the squnece of teh aphlatebs in a wrod is not improtnat, the only thing improtnat is that teh frsit and lsat aphlatebs are at the cerroct pstoiion”
This functions only if we have stored the word as an image. Technical monster words are not saved in our pictorial memory. We must read them in the second way, i.e. with the brain comparing the signals from the visual cortex (i.e. the script symbol) with the information from the auditory cortex in the Gyrus angularis and the Gyrus supramarginalis. The brain searches for what we hear inside in the entries of the brain lexicon. There we either find the word or the brain composes its meaning from the individual parts know to it or we think “Never heard this! What could it be?”
Lesson four: Build clear sentences!
“The witness informed the court, she saw the accused holding the money bag and opening the...” – when we hear or read a sentence, our brain creates a hypotheses based on it about how it could continue. Considering the position of things, the sentence above will probably end it with “safe”. Humans therefore think the language a little in advance. Neurolinguists speak of this advance analysis of sentence structures as “parsing”. When a sentence construction becomes more complex, the brain tends to hold a wrong assumption about the end of a sentence for considerably longer. The reader remains a little uncertain. Over a period of time it becomes rather strenuous and when he cannot concentrate anymore, he switches off. And probably misses the conclusion.
This leads to the fourth insight for authors: If you want to maintain a firm grip on your listeners and readers, build clear and concise sentences.
Lesson five: Create mental pictures for the reader!
Please read this first: “She first washed her hands and face clean, then went and bowed before the prince, who gave her the golden shoe. Then she sat on a step, drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe and put it in the slipper. It was as if it was poured for her. And as she got up and the king saw her face, he recognized the beautiful girl who had danced with him and cried: “She is the right bride” (Grimm’s fairy tales “Cinderella”)
And now: “The joy of work: a term formed from culturally conveyed attitudes towards the sense of work. If work serves to secure material existence, the joy of work results from the remuneration; if work serves individual and social development, the joy of work has a more holistic meaning.“ (Gabler Commerce Lexikon).
What played in your head when you were reading the first passage? And the second?
Neuroscientist Professor Ernst Pöppel of the Institute for Medical Psychology of the Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich differentiates these two types of reading as “image oriented” and “term oriented”. He explains the first type as follows: “Image oriented reading is triggered when reading a novel or a poem. Images are created in our brain from the first lines, and a story evolves over the process of reading (...) so that image oriented reading is very much more individual”. Moreover, it involves more of the right hemisphere of the brain. Simply said, the more emotional functions are anchored there. The left hemisphere takes care of systems and structures; e.g. the sentence structure is decoded there. About “term oriented reading” Pöppel explains: “ The result of the reading is placed in a rational context and the reading contributes to expanding explicit knowledge made available through language.”
Completely clear: It is recommended that user and operating manuals be written in a term oriented manner – that is rather like Gablers Commerce lexicon. But a good comparison or a suitable metaphor can fire the neurons even in the introduction to a user manual. And what prevents us from formulating using pictorial orientation for image and information brochures?
For technical writers these five lessons of neuro-scientific research indicate: If you want to be successful, you must write in the minds of your readers.
Literature for further reading
- Reiter, Markus (2010): Klardeutsch. Neuro-Rhetorik nicht nur für Manager. Hanser Verlag. München.
- Reiter, Markus; Sommer, Steffen (2009): Perfekt schreiben. Hanser Verlag. München.
- Reiter, Markus (2012): Schlaue Zellen, das Neuro-Buch für alle, die nicht auf den Kopf gefallen sind. Gütersloher Verlagshaus. Gütersloh.