Be a Better Writer: Use Brain Triggers

Brain TriggersOur brains are remarkable machines capable of sorting and storing information we don’t even realize is in there. It’s being able to recall this data that trips most of us up. We can all think of a time we felt a fierce emotion. We know the feeling is perfect for our current writing project. We want to use that old pain to help us write about crippling grief. Or use the day we got married to portray heartwarming joy. But the moment we sit down and try to work those strong emotions into the story, the feeling is too vague, and we can’t channel enough of the old emotions to do the scene justice.

That’s because the information we want is in cold storage. Our brains have tucked it away to make room for all the knowledge we need for our daily tasks. Things like our job duties, the driving directions to our doctor’s office, and the name of cereal we like for breakfast. Plus, our poor brains are bombarded with new information constantly. Some of it we even memorize without trying to, like the lyrics to a hit song, or the name of a best selling book. Our brains must shift information around to make space, and connect new pathways. We do most of this organizing when our brains are at rest, so if you want a high functioning brain, get in your 8 hours every night.

In order to weave old experiences into our writing, we need to dip down into our brain vaults and recover all this rich vibrant material. The best way to uncover these hidden emotions and lost memories is by using brain triggers. With triggers you can trick your brain into reordering this old data. Basically, you make the brain believe the information should move up in the recall process.

There are many different types of triggers, but using our five senses is one of the easiest. This week I’ll start with smell, but come back over the next few weeks to hear about the others.

Brain Trigger 1: SMELL

Smells have an immediate effect on our brain chemistry. It has a detailed scientific explanation, but it comes down to where our olfactory receptors are in relationship to the other areas of the brain.  I don’t want to bog you down with too many details, just trust me. It works, and here’s proof.

Photo By Tangopaso
Photo By Tangopaso

In preparation for a big event, let’s say you dab on your best perfume. You don’t use this one very often, it’s expensive and you only have a few drops left. The moment you open the bottle I’m willing to bet you feel something. You’re excited about the event. You might notice you feel prettier, sexier, or just more optimistic. That is 100% your brain telling you this scent goes along with old happy memories. Part of the reason it works so well is association. You last wore this perfume at a fun event. And because you lack proximity to the smell. You don’t use this perfume every day so your brain hasn’t cataloged and dismissed the scent as ordinary.

Sound familiar? I told you it works.

The hardest part is finding the smells that work for you. It’s a highly individualized process and it will take some research to determine what scents will make your brain respond. Try keeping a brain triggers journal. In it, note how particular scents make you feel. When you find one that works, jot down the effects, and stop exposing yourself to the smell. When you’re ready to write, smell that scent again. After the break, your brain will flood you with emotions and memories associated with that smell. The effect can disappear quickly, so plan on working fast. When you’re done, give your brain a mini-vacation from the scent. Months later, when you smell that scent again, you should activate the same trigger.

Since not smelling the scent is part of what makes this trigger work so well, it helps to have lots of different scents that trigger a range of emotions. I have a host of scent triggers. I happen to feel amazing with the smell of gingerbread in the air. It’s a heady reminder of happy times, of Christmases, and winter days at my parent’s cabin. For years, my mother couldn’t stand to be around the flowers from her mother’s funeral and I can’t smell gardenias without thinking of another late relative. Apricots are my tween year memory jogger. One sun-warmed fruit, and I’m sitting in my parent’s backyard in some impossibly short cut-offs eating apricots until the sticky juice coats my legs.

Don’t be surprised if odd or unexpected scents trigger the strongest memories. An old colleague of mine finds the smell of Play-Doh a positive time travel portal to her preschool years. I can’t smell injection molded plastic without thinking of Barbie dolls. One whiff of that yucky chemical smell and I’m back to trying to cram my doll’s feet into those tiny outfit-matching shoes.

Experiment with different scents, use candles, perfume (yours or your lover’s), maybe bake cookies from your grandmother’s recipe cards. Get the flowers that grew outside your bedroom window as a child, or from your prom corsage. Fill your writing zone with some fragrant magic and watch your fingers rip up the keyboard.

Up Next from Robin… Writing better with Brain Triggers Part Two: Use Sounds

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

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