What The Writer Needs To Know: The Brain and The Body

Writers do their best to bring life an authenticity of the full range of human conditions. Sadly, however, writers are mere mortals and can fall into some trope-tastic misunderstandings and assumptions.

At the titular panel at WorldCon2019, Daryl Gregory, Dr. Keren Landsman, Benjamin Kinney, Mick Schubert, and Hadas Sloin were there to set the record straight.

On “Team Brain” were Daryl and Hadas. On “Team Body” was our epidemiologist, Dr. Keren. Benjamin, as a neuro-scientist, was claiming seats on both teams. And Mick Schubert did his best to stay out of the fight.

“Favorite” Misunderstandings in Media

  • Dr. Keren – Nosebleeds as a sign of something catastrophic!
  • Daryl – The significant cough. The character thinks they’re on the mend, and they cough once, and everyone exchanges significant glances. 2 scenes later — we’re at the funeral.
  • Hadas – On The Walking Dead, they did an MRI on a zombie. By definition, there should be nothing. They zoomed in to show a single neuron (ridiculous!) And showed the ‘electrical activity’ in blue and the ‘zombie activity in red’. Claiming “it invades the brain like meningitis.” So Wrong.
  • Mick – Magical genetics, with no epigenetics. And timing! They take a blood sample and know exactly what’s wrong in 10 minutes. The tests can take longer, and more tests are ruling out what it’s NOT, than figuring out what it is.
  • Dr. Keren – On Dr. House — Oncologists don’t do surgery.
  • Benjamin – Human minds being ‘uploaded’ into digital form or AI minds being ‘downloaded’ into a body.
  • Hadas – Her career goal IS the digitization of the human brain. The human mind’s computational power is underestimated. It’s firmware — firmly attached to the body and the physical network. It’s fascinating, but we’re further away than we think.

Tips To Get It Right

  1. With sickness, we think we know how diseases work. Wrong. We only know how they affect us. Drugs are far more often to be guess and test, and then backwards derive the science to why it worked.
  2. Our brains’ perception of self is easily deceived.
  3. There’s been some cases of treating phantom pain (from lost limbs, etc) with mirror therapy. But, we’re not sure if it’s more than the placebo effect at this point.
  4. A human body can’t survive by consuming human blood.
  5. When someone is exposed to radiation, they’re far more likely to end up with cancer, like after chernobyl, than super powers.
  6. Super healing would lead to massive scar tissue and cancer
  7. Super speed would require eating more. Much more.
  8. Creating sensory experiences from the brain (i.e. in virtual reality simulators) is hard because it has to be customized per person. And is easiest when we bypass the brain.
  9. Genetics is hard. If changing one gene would change the trait, we already do that. Most are multiple genes with unexpected consequences.

Underused Diseases

  1. Tuberculosis
  2. Black death (not bubonic plague. Research the difference!)
  3. Influenza
  4. Stupidity
  5. Preventable ones (measles, mumps, chicken pox as an adult, tetanus, rabies, etc)

Books/Media That Got It Right

  1. Orphan Black (except the brain uploading)
  2. Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
  3. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  4. Blindsight by Peter Watts
    – He got it wrong. And Bad. But, it’s a great ethical discussion.
  5. Lock In and Head On by John Scalzi

Tips Specifically For Writers

  1. Your job is to be convincing. Read as much as possible. Say/Write as little as possible, to sound convincing.
  2. Write to the limits of your knowledge. Then stop and take out half. That way, you can only be half-wrong.
  3. Write from a layperson’s perspective, then you can claim that the character misunderstood.
  4. Remember that scientists have specializations. Your character doesn’t have to know how everything works.
  5. Making magic ‘scientific’ usually doesn’t work. Understanding why it wouldn’t work in real life might help you get it less wrong.
  6. Pick your premise (zombies/magic/whatever), but be consistent after that.

A Helpful Resource!

The Science and Entertainment Exchange exists to help writers of all forms of media Get. It. Right. Their mission? To connect “entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storytelling.” The website seems movie and tv focused, but Mick Schubert said it’s for all of us.


When writing about the brain and the body, beware the Dunning–Kruger  effect! A little bit of knowledge makes you think you know how something works, when you’re barely seeing the tip of the iceberg. Do your research and be sure to double-check everything you think you know.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back again soon with more writing tips and writerly musings.

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