When the Sharks Gather

When the Sharks Gather: How Rituals Can Make Us Better Writers

Before I write, there’s this little thing that I do. Call it a ritual. I do it the same way every time. And according to neuroscience research, my little ritual is actually priming my brain to deliver a focused and confident writing session.

Here’s how it goes…

Everyday at 5:30 a.m., I zombie out of bed. I shuffle through the dark to the kitchen and switch on the electric teapot. I fill the pour-over with coffee and stack it atop my blue pot-bellied mug. As the water heats to life, I head to the living room to turn on the twinkle lights strung up since the holidays. Laptop boots. Notebooks and pens assemble. Coffee trickles into cup.


“Chocolate” by John Loo. Image CC.

Lastly, I break off a nub of chocolate from the stash in my goody-drawer. I hold this nub lovingly and whisper to it a little prayer of sorts. Seems appropriate. Chocolate is, after all, theobroma, food of the gods. Muse munchums. To this heavenly food I give my thanks for its nourishment and my request to please nourish me now during my creative hijinx. I savor that nub of chocolate. Then I slide into my reclining wingback chair and set off on a two-hour writing jollification!

My writing sessions are intensely focused, fun, and productive.

But is that all really thanks to a superstitious pattern of actions? Francesca Gino and Michael Norton would answer yes. In a way-too short co-authored article in the Scientific American, the researchers explain that ritual work, whether or not they are rational or irrational. And they work even if you don’t believe in the efficacy of rituals.

In the Lab

“Crossed Fingers” by Evan-Amos. Image CC.

Gino and Norton conducted experiments where participants were given a task, but half of them first had to carry out a small, superstitious acts or rituals like crossing their fingers or touching a lucky talisman. The half that engaged in the ritual performed better overall on the task. They gave invested more effort, demonstrated enhanced confidence, and did better on future tasks that did not require a ritual. (Even participants who said before the experiment that they did not believe in rituals or superstitions performed better when they executed a ritualistic or superstitious behavior!)

And the results seem to be consistent around the world and across cultures. Hardly a surprise, considering how many rituals we see globally. Rituals seem to decorate the entire tapestry of human history. In the 1940s, anthropologists observed a ritualistic pattern in an indigenous tribal community in the South Pacific.Whenever the fisherman set out to fish in the calm lagoon, they just hopped into the water and fished. But whenever they set out to fish in the shark infested sea, they always performed a ritual to seek protection from the gods.

Whenever uncertainty or risk run high, we humans need a ritual.

The Royals celebrate after winning the 2015 #WorldSeries.

Royals celebrate their epic 2015 victory! From Arturo Pardavila III. Image CC.

Sports psychologists have seen and studied the ritual phenomenon for a long time. Michael Jordan always wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform. Boston Red Sox third basemen Wade Boggs wrote the Hebrew word “chai” (living) in the dirt before each at bat. The entire Kansas City Royals team spritzed on some Victoria’s Secret perfume and listened to the same rap song before each game. Between every serve, Maria Sharipova does this seemingly anal five-count foot shuffle-shuffle-shuffle. The list goes on and on.

And did these athletes enjoy a better performance? Well, I’ll let you Wikipedia the results if you don’t already know.

Gray Matters
The real question is why? Why do rituals have this effect on us?

If you fMRI the brain while someone performs a ritual (praying, meditating, or some other ritualized action), what you will see is a deactivation of the parietal lobe, the area most associated with processing and sensory stimulus. Turning off your parietal lobe is like disconnecting from the world around you. Shutting off “reality.”

The next thing you’ll see is the frontal lobes fully activate. These lobes are involved in our ability to focus and concentrate.

Finally, you’ll also see the amygdala go into hyperdrive. This area of the brain is thought to be the center of our primal emotions: fear, joy, panic, relaxation. A hyperactive amygdala is not necessarily a condition you want to provoke in the body. See Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, for some pretty disturbing disorders (rife with panic attacks) linked to an inflamed amygdala. But in the case of rituals, the amygdala’s inflammation produces more joyful and relaxed emotions, leaving fear and panic in the backseat.

And with your brain operating in this manner, what you get is that intensely revved up flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified in the brains of the world top athletes, artists, and business leaders. You know this state of mind if you’ve ever gotten so wrapped up in a task that the external world just peeled away and it was impossible to tell if a minute spanned an hour or an hour spanned a millisecond.

Ritual or Habitual?
But herein lies the rub: to get your brain into this altered state, you have to perform a ritual, and not just some rutted habit. On the surface, rituals and habits seem almost identical. They are both sequenced or patterned behaviors that recur in the same way. The difference between rituals and habits boils down to intent. You do a ritual in order to achieve a particular outcome: hit the ball out of the park, sink fifty three-pointers, ace every serve, win the World Series or write one helluva good novel!

If we look back on my morning ablutions, my trek around the house switching on appliances and making the coffee is a habit. I do it the same way because it turned out to be the most efficient system, not because I think it will make me a better writer. Breaking off the chocolate, whispering my little prayer, and savoring the chocolate? That is definitely a ritual because I certainly duplicate that pattern of actions with a desired outcome in mind. Besides being the food of gods, chocolate has also been shown to relax the brain and promote creativity. So it’s basically my vitamin-W (vitamin Write).


Jambi the Genie from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Yes, I know it’s Dumbo’s feather. I don’t technically need it. I already have the ability to go sit down for two hours and knock out a couple thousand words. But diving into a writing project is not that different from plunging into shark infested waters. And if doing a little ritual is going to help me maneuver with poise among a bloodthirsty flock of sharp-toothed torpedoes, well then…mekalekahi-mekahini-ho!

The best part about this research on rituals is that you can truly tailor-make your own ritual. So long as you do it with a desired outcome in mind, it does not matter what actions go into your ritual. Cross your heart. Light a candle. Whisper a chant. Turn in circles three times and bark like a dog. Anything goes!

So what is your ritual (or should I say writual)? What do you do when the sharks begin to circle?

For further reading:

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge

doidge-brainhealingDoidge, Norman. The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity. New York: Viking, 2015. Print.

Genre: Nonfiction (although don’t be surprised if you often think you’re reading scifi!)

Summary: Imagination heals chronic pain. Meditation reverses blindness. Walking stops the onset of Parkinson’s. Red LED lights heal arthritis or physical disabilities caused by brain defects. Music reverses the symptoms of autism, dyslexia, or ADHD.

Sounds like the stuff of tabloid headlines, right? Well, the title is not kidding when it proclaims”from the frontiers.” The only people getting you closer to these seemingly futuristic frontiers are Isaac Asimov, Andy Weir, and James S. A. Corey.

Critique: The first chapter is so riveting, you can’t help but worry that the rest of the book will dud. Isn’t that how the bulk of these controversial medical narratives go? Part one: hype. Part two: snore.

Fear not with Doidge! Every chapter features a compelling braid of stories featuring innovative researchers, determined doctors, and actively engaged patients (both young and old) who bring about amazing neurological transformations and physical or psychological recoveries. And every chapter effectively outshines its predecessor!

Additionally, Doidge’s narratives place you in the skin of someone living with a debilitating brain injury, disorder, or dysfunction. You come away with a more comprehensive understanding and compassionate perspective on what life is like when you share it with these substantial challenges.

After centuries of cutting the body up, down, and inside out, medical science and treatment undergo a complete paradigm shift in this book! Doidge provides a veritable cornucopia of noninvasive, non-surgical, and drug-free neuroplastic treatments and therapies for Parkinson’s, MS, autism, reading disorders, blindness, , , , The list goes on and on. The astounding results are backed by research and ongoing studies.The ability of the brain and body to partner up and heal a disorder, injury, or disease thrusts the patient out of the passive victim role, straight into the driver’s seat of recovery. Eastern remedies combine with Western technologies. Mind unites with body. Neurons grow, die, regrow, and grow better than before. The results are nothing short of revolutionary!

Read this book if for no other reason than to flirt with wonderment. Dance with the bedazzling. Intimate yourself with the impossible. And perhaps if you or someone you care about lives alongside pain, disease, or disability, this book may help you find a viable route to hope and recovery when all other signs previously pointed to despair.

Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 3

(Migrated post. Content originally published 2/2014 on jennifermichellemason.blogspot.com.)

New research has started to debunk the idea that the two hemispheres of our brains do separate or independent tasks.

Neuroscientist Kara D. Federmeier has found that the brain is much more dynamically linked than we ever suspected. Federmeier asserts that the two sides of the brain actually work in tandem, through unified partnerships, to get things done.

Take language processing, for example. We used to think that the right brain handled that (along with other various “creative” tasks), while the left brain handled math (or other more “logical” tasks). Federmeier’s research through the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology shows that BOTH the left and right side of the brain are involved with language. So when someone is talking you, your left brain is anticipating what’s coming next and actively trying to predict meanings. The right brain is also actively engaged, only its neurons are working on retention tasks. It’s like your brain’s little secretary jotting down the important stuff you’ll want to recall from the conversation.

Essentially, neuroscience is finding that the brain breaks up big tasks into bite-size pieces and both hemispheres share the many tasks involved. Like a couple sharing the household chores! One washes the dishes, the other one dries. One sweeps the floor, the other one mops.

And this new research is huge for me because one of the tenets of my writing methodology encourages writers to a.) break up the task of writing into smaller pieces, and b.) get their brains to work as a more unified and harmonized system (rather than a left-logical/editor brain at war with a right-creative/writer brain).

Evidently, this is what naturally works best for our brains. It’s what the brain is already doing! In Part 1, I talked about how imagination impacts neurology. Imagining yourself playing the piano or practicing a sport stimulates and develops the neurons almost as if you were actually physically practicing. Thus, to be more effective and productive, writers need to stop imagining their two brains (the editor brain and the creator brain) at war. In Pt. 2, I explored how writers can break up the monumental task of writing a novel into more manageable pieces. Not only that, but how to break it up into tasks that allow both hemispheres of the brain to participate as a unified team: how to revise while writing, how to edit while creating!

Yes, this is a tower of books! Beautiful, eh? Photo by Aleksander Razumny. Image CC.

Yes, this is a tower of books! Beautiful, eh? Photo by Aleksander Razumny. Image CC.

This time, I want to cover the next bite-sized bit in my radical approach to the writing process: Gathering Sources.

An inside view of the tower. Photo by Mar.tin. Image CC.

An inside view of the tower. Photo by Mar.tin. Image CC.

When researchers gather sources, they go about gathering books, articles, or interviews. They talk to librarians and consult experts. They draw pictures, diagrams, charts, or maps. I recommend those steps if you are writing nonfiction, or need some fact to back up your fiction. But the kind of gathering sources I’m talking about is a little different.

Gathering sources is the time to journal wildly. Make character diagrams. Interview those characters and creatures. Find out what they want most and what they most fear. What they treasure and what they can’t stand. Explore your world. Draw maps of your settings. Be your own best expert. Do any of the millions of writing exercises suggested in all those craft books you read.

You might be tempted to think of this as the drafting stage of writing, but really, it’s what my VCFA faculty mentor Julie Larios would call “playtime.”

AND, there’s a plethora of research already out there underscoring the importance of play! (Curious? Check out Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Brown and Vaughn. Also, there’s a great video from the Aspen Ideas Festival 2010, and a podcast worth your while!)

So if this is not drafting, then what is it? Well, to me, it’s the kind of writing you should do throughout the whole of NaNoWriMo. It’s the kind of hot and fast writing Stephen King refers to as “telling yourself the story” (On Writing). Here’s a snippet of my “gathering sources” writing which I blazed through in the 2013 NaNo challenge.

WARNING: What you are about to read is in its roughest, toughest, most nascent forms. It came from a beat on a beat sheet and then from a summarized scene on a scene card – two other methods in the revise-before-you-write approach that I’ll talk about further on. Yes, this scene will undergo future revision, but for now, this is how the writing comes out when I forget all about being a writer and just focus on telling myself the story.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: This scene falls in the middle of book two in my Silk and Venom series, a YA hard boiled urban fantasy that chronicles one teen’s encounter with seretans. Seretans are the half-human, half-spider creatures descended from Arachné – ya’ know, the woman tortured and transformed by Greek gods. Humans are a seretan staple. They crave our bodily juices. In my saga, seretans are poisoning smartphones with their venom in an effort to make the surface of the earth their new kingdom and cafeteria. In this scene, the protagonist computer-hacker Harker, is prepping for a journey. He and a few rebel seretans (Brash and others) have had to team up in order to defeat “the big bad,” but at this point, the team is not exactly getting along.

Okay, here we go:

In the next scenes, I think it would be fun to have Harker and Brash clash a little over what all Harker is packing. He’s got a huge duffle bag full of crap. Brash points out that he won’t be able to carry and it’s full of stuff he won’t need.

I do need all this! And it’s not that much, says Harker.

That duffle bag is bigger than you are, Brash retorts. Then he sifts through it noting the multiple pairs of pants, undergarments, feet coverings—

Those are called socks, Harker corrects.

And you can’t go a few days wearing the same…socks?! Brash snorts. What happens to human feet if they do not wear clean socks every day?

Well, for one, they don’t grow weird hooky-things on their toes.

Brash squeezes his feet self-consciously.

Yeah, Harker goads. That’s right. I saw those bad-boys when you were bleeding to death on my dining room table.

My toe-claws are at least useful. Unlike your four sweaters—

Hey, I don’t know what the weather is gonna be like where we’re going—

And your…comic books.

Brash spreads out the full series of Destin Espoir and he is immediately reduced to gleeful mush when he sees there are so many to be read. “There is more than one?”

Harker snorts. Chuh! There are 262, not counting the spin-off series.

I had no idea, Brash says. I had this one (he indicates the series opener).

Brash thumbs through the second in the series. He remarks that he thought the first one ended on an unreasonable cliffhanger. Stopping mid-action like that. Ridiculous! But now he sees why.

Harker nabs the comic book and makes a remark about maybe Brash can check them out when they get back—since none of these can come along now.

Brash relents that maybe they should bring a few, considering the long drive and back. They seem on even ground for a just a moment. Brash picks through Harker’s packing supplies and says he should put those in something he can carry on his back.

Brash even goes so far as to twist it all in Harker’s bed sheet and tie it around Harker’s body. He displays how all of his possessions are on him in the same way.

That is how a Warrior packs, he says. Harker admires the compact approach.

Harker looks in the mirror and realizes he looks like an idiot. Madda even cruises by the room to ask about more sleeping bags (should they send someone out to go buy some?) and she laughs pretty good when she sees the twisted sheet tied around Harker’s torso.

Harker thanks Brash, but then dumps out his backpack and says he’ll stick with how humans pack.

As Harker struggles with the knot, Brash goes to the window and checks their surroundings. He glimpses Sophie in her room, spying on them, but she’s gone so fast he’s not entirely sure.

He mentions it to Harker who says, “Oh that’s my good friend, Sophie. She’s not spying, she’s just really shy. You can wave at her if you want. But you gotta’ do it human-style.”

How’s that, Brash wonders.

With this finger up, Harker demonstrates. He makes a fist and lifts only the middle finger.

That’s weird, Brash says.

Yeah well, that’s humanity for ya.

Brash waits until he sees Sophie again, and then he smiles big and waves. The look on her face is not what he expected but she stops peeking through the window.

That’s it. No quotation marks and really not a whole lot of proper punctuation in general. But who cares? The scene flowed fast and furious. It made me laugh out loud because all of the sudden Harker tricked this bad-ass Warrior who inadvertently flips the birdie to a nosy next door neighbor. THAT detail was NOT on the beat sheet and it certainly was not on the scene card! It just happened. It was an act of autonomy, a declaration of independence! An imaginary character that I created basically asserted himself as unique, self-motivated, and independent of my puppet strings.

And all because I took the time to gather the source material on him. I let the two spheres of my brain work together, each one taking on a different aspect of the writing process. And all that miraculous neuroscience took place while I was basically playing around!

"Depths of Imagination" by JennaleeAuclair.

“Depths of Imagination” by JennaleeAuclair.

Playing helps you better understand the people you will write about and the world they live in. It also sparks your best critical thinking and problem solving (The Craft of Research, Booth et al, 30). In other words, what seems like purely creative playtime is also an analytical heyday for the brain. And if revision boils down to reconsidering ideas in light of new evidence, then gathering sources is the time when you encounter a lot of new evidence and will likely revise your story a lot.

But never fear. All you risk changing at this point is a one-sentence logline (refer back to Pt. 2).

Unfortunately, you can’t gather sources indefinitely. You have to complete your novel some day. So, set a deadline for your playtime and really focus and funnel your creative and analytical efforts.

Now, even though you may be tempted, do not jump in and start drafting—YET. I know the pull back to your old two-brains-at-war habit will be strong. But trust me, postpone drafting for later. Your Jekyll and Hyde have only just begun to get along and work together through aiki. And besides, we have a lot more revision to do. So, before you run off and write your story, go play and gather sources.

In the next installment of radical writing approaches, I’ll show you how to make a beat sheet (AKA an outline) and then some scene cards!