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Thursday, April 21, 2011

T3 - Emotional Brain v. Rational Brain

People do things out of character all the time. Donald Maass says that we should strive to create scenes in which our characters think, talk, or act the exact opposite of how they normally think, talk, or act in order to make them three-dimensional.

I totally agree with Maass, but the WHY behind your character's shocking behavior or thoughts is super important. A character has to reach a point of being pushed so far that they suddenly have motivation to act out of character.

I'd like to posit that the main reason a character does something like this is because their emotional brain commandeers their rational brain.

What does this look like in real life? Here are a few examples:

1) Zinedine Zidane: When he head-butted Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Soccer finals, he was kicked out of the game, France lost the World Cup to Italy, and Zidane’s career (and world-wide role model status) ended in disgrace.

2) Mike Tyson: When he bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in their 1993 title boxing match, his emotional brain commandeering cost him $3 million and lost his boxing license.

3) Bill Clinton: When he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," he got impeached.

4) Elliot Spitzer: New York governor Spitzer had to resign in disgrace when it became public knowledge about his involvement in a prostitution ring with prostitutes who charged over $3k an hour.

In each of these examples, we scratch our very rational brains and ask, "What in the world were they thinking?"

The answer is, of course, that they weren't.

Our emotional brain (amygdala) is the seat of a basest survival instincts: feeding, mating, fighting, flighting. The rational brain (prefrontal cortex) is the seat of executive function, rational thought, and judgment. Ordinarily, both parts of the brain work together: the rational brain adds subtlety and perspective to the raw feelings of the emotional brain and the emotional brain tempers the rational brain’s cool clinical judgments. But when out of whack, the emotional brain takes over and simplifies everything to black-and-white choices instead of subtle shades of rational gray.

I promise not to go into too much detail, but neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman found that when the amygdala (emotional brain) is active with blood and oxygen, there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex (rational brain). Our thinking power is disrupted and there are deficits in our problem solving because the blood and oxygen are present in the amygdala versus the prefrontal cortex. It is like losing 10 to 15 IQ points temporarily, which explains “What was I thinking?”

So this is happening to your characters in novels too! They think on the knee-jerk reaction of the amygdala, which hones in on potential dangers or threats and holds them up against previously stored emotional memories. (Good explanation found here.) This prompts them to basically lose some "smarts" and act in foolish, embarrassing, hot-headed, ridiculous ways that they most assuredly later regret.

Next week, I'll have a quiz for your characters to see if they are left-brained or right-brained...and how you can use this in your stories!

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Sierra Gardner said...

I've definitely had this happen occasionally. Luckily I never ended up doing anything too drastic, but you ask yourself afterward how in the world what you were doing seemed like a good idea.

Raquel Byrnes said...

This is a very helpful post, Jeannie. Thanks for explaining this. I'd heard Maass say this but didn't quite understand the psychology behind it. Thanks!
Edge of Your Seat Romance

Miss Sharp said...

Great post, Jeannie! I know Mr. Maass believes in "tension on every page" but hopefully writers don't take this to mean any outlandish or unbelievable twist in either plot or character is a good thing if it creates conflict...

Isn't it kind of a double-edged sword?

McKenzie McCann said...

I find that there's a fine line between making your readers go "wow, that's out of character" instead of "that's ridiculous. He'd never do that."

Anonymous said...

Love this! I have two characters, brother and sister, where one is more impulsive and one is more rational, logical. I can't wait fo rthe next installment!

Anne Baxter Campbell said...

I particularly loved this one, Jeannie. Maybe because I've been guilty of indulging my amygdala's urgings when I should have been listening to the prefrontal cortex's objections!

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.