Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

16.13: Day Brain vs. Night Brain

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette, Dan, Amal, and Howard

Patterns in the way we’re speaking may betray which ‘brain’ we’re using; often bound by what’s familiar, sometimes loosed for free-er choosing.

Writing like the day-brain’s thinking
Singing while the night-brain’s winking
All the cadence going funky
(golden-mantled howler monkey)

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, and mastered by Alex Jackson. XKCD #1412, by Randall Munroe, was referenced during this episode. As was the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.

Homework: Night Brain exercise: take a piece of prose that is giving you trouble. Put yourself in a dark, quiet place. Listen to a recording of a poem (“Moon Fishing” may serve nicely.) Write automatically, unselfconsciously, for 5 minutes: think about it like singing on the page.

Thing of the week: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Singing and speaking use different parts of the brain. Speech therapists sometimes teach their clients to sing through a speech impediment. The day brain is the state of consciousness we use for communication, while the night brain is the intuitive metaphorical side. In musicals, songs are moments of emotional change. Songs are a break in the layers of reality of the musical. Or consider iambic pentameter versus trochaic tetrameter. In writing, we try to get in the zone, where the words flow. How do you activate night brain? Try Amal’s exercise! A little poetry in a dark space, and write, write, write.

[Season 16, Episode 13]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Day Brain vs. Night Brain.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Amal] I’m Amal.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We are continuing with our third episode looking at poetry with Amal. Amal, tell us about Day Brain vs. Night Brain.

[Amal] I am so excited to do this. So, last episode, we ended… Well, the whole episode was about talking about poetry as being like singing and talking about prose as being like speaking. What I want to dig into a little bit more today is the ways in which singing and speaking are super different, and that they literally use different parts of the brain. So this is something… I am, by no means, a neuroscientist, absolutely. I am so open to being fact checked on this, but my understanding is that often speech therapists will have recourse to teaching their clients to sing through a speech impediment, that… To kind of essentially draw on this other part of the brain that is not impeded in the same way. So you can draw on this as a resource to shape or change the way that you speak.

[Howard] There are numerous accounts of stroke patients who’ve suffered from aphasia who can no longer speak, who can nod and shake their heads, but they can sing. By singing, they are suddenly able to unlock things, and, yes, the speech therapist can in many cases bring them back to being able to speak by having them sing everything first. It’s… Brains are weird.


[Howard] The fact that singing and speaking are different parts of the brains is probably learned early on and, it’s hard to say, but there’s no doubt about the fact that where we are culturally and physiologically today, they are different brain activities. Using both is a super powerful tool.

[Amal] I am so glad to be… I always have this moment of, like, I am using this as a metaphor, but I want to make sure that it is actually accurate.


[Amal] So I don’t [garbled]

[Howard] I googled it before we started.

[Amal] So, this is the thing. I mean, like any… Like any muscle… Sometimes where I feel more comfortable using this metaphor is that if you have one muscle that is weak because another one is overworked, then using… Rehabilitating them will often mean bringing them into some kind of balance or line. So I want to draw on this difference, to think about poetry and prose, and how we can not only learn to write poetry, and draw on those parts of the brain that maybe we don’t draw on as much in order to essentially sing on the page. But also to use it as a metaphor for this concept that comes from [Cecilia Ryan?] who i have mentioned before, who first, so far as I am aware, coined these terms of day brain and night brain, where day brain is your attitude, your state of consciousness that is about communication, denotation, connotation, and all that sort of stuff. Your night brain is instead the brain that you use for vocation, invocation, for the more ambiguous, the more intuitive, the more unselfconscious, essentially. The part of your brain that you metaphorically sing with essentially. I want to kind of like really get into this. I want to think about, again, drawing on the singing/speaking difference, I want to kind of draw your attention to when do we tend to encounter sort of singing as a weird disruption, and stuff. So I’m thinking here of things like musicals, where… Where does the… Where do the songs tend to come in? Right? They tend to come in at moments of great emotional transformation or distress. Like, the music… The song is a break in a layer of reality, essentially. And is like an opening in something to allow something else to emerge. I think too of the difference between, to draw on Shakespeare again, the ways in which characters speak in iambic pentameter in a play and the regular… Iambic pentameter being ta-duh, ta-duh, ta-duh, ta-duh, ta-duh… Which is a kind of tends to get called the most spoken sort of cadence, the one that most mimics our regular speech, versus when someone like the witches in Macbeth come on stage. Instead, they speak in trochaic tetrameter. So instead of something like, “Shall I compare the to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate,” you get something like, “Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble.” That’s different, right? Like, that weirdness, that is a cadence that gets associated with ballads and with songs, instead of with speech. It’s also associated with the supernatural, with the unnatural, with the frightening and the different. So, without the negative connotations of that, I want to kind of map out day brain and night brain. I want to ask all of you, basically, do you ever feel when you are writing your novels and your short stories or your comics, do you ever feel like you are slipping from one state of mind to another? That you feel like sometimes you are writing from a very kind of day brain-y perspective versus sometimes you slip into this weird other world that is more night brain-y?

[Dan] Yeah. For me… I don’t know if this is exactly the same mechanism that you’re talking about, but I suspect that it is. A lot of my writing, and one of the reasons that I try to block out long chunks of time rather than writing in small pieces, is because I feel like my writing process is trying to force my way through, out of this very structured, knowing what I’m going to say before I write down kind of brain, versus just what we like to call getting in the zone. I’m there, I’m in the zone, and the words are just flowing. I suspect that that is more of a night brain situation, where the words are just coming out kind of almost independently of my conscious thought.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. This is more literal than you actually mean it to be, but I have fallen asleep while writing, and continued to write.

[Amal] What? Wow!

[Mary Robinette] It’s interesting…


[Mary Robinette] Reading what I’ve written the next day, because it is… It’s never very long. It’s a couple of sentences. This… We won’t go into why this happens. It involves… Well, no, we are going into why. It involves staying up too late. If I said I often write with my eyes closed so that I can see a scene in my head and not be distracted by what’s going on around me. Occasionally, when I am really fatigued, it happens two or three times maybe over the course of my life, my hands keep going. In the same way that you can drive someplace and not notice… Not remember any of the drive.

[Amal] Right.

[Mary Robinette] It’s very interesting when that happens, because there is this… The sentences still contain like subject object verb, they’re grammatically correct, and also completely free associative. Like, one of them, I was talking about revolution, and the scene was supposed to be about some one turning around.

[Amal] Huh.

[Mary Robinette] But the entire thing pivoted off the other meaning of that word.

[Amal] Oh, wow.

[Mary Robinette] And went into this thing about a revolution and my nephew’s involvement in the revolution. I’m like, “There is no nephew in this story. There is no revolution in this story.” Someone was literally just turning around. It’s… For me, the thing that is interesting about that is the… With what you’re talking about with the day brain/night brain, is that it’s about, for me, the times when I find the other places that languages can go. The unexpected places, and the unexpected associations. That these are the times that I feel like I am activating my night brain as opposed to my day brain, which is very “These are the facts.”

[Amal] Yesss.

[Howard] A thing that has stuck with me ever since I learned it is that trochaic tetrameter… Is that the name that…? That is the meter of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles song.

[Amal] Oh, that’s awesome.

[Howard] No, it gets better. XKCD number 1412 is a Wikipedia article titles with the right syllable stress pattern to be sung to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles song. If you need to break your head out of the word loop it is stuck in, start singing golden mantled howler monkeys, Greater Cleveland film commission, hairy flower chaffer beetle. Okay? It’s a whole list of these. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

[Dan] There’s…

[Howard] And it’s…

[Dan] I just gotta say, there’s a twitter account that all it posts is this.


[Amal] Yes. I follow it. It blows my mind periodically. The worst thing… It’s not worst, it’s actually wonderful. But as you said, each one of those terms what was coming to mind was not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the opening to Alexander Hamilton. Like… What was the howler monkeys one? [Melodic] Golden mantled howler monkey. [/Melodic] It’s like… It actually doesn’t match on as well, but it is the go to stress pattern in my brain still, years later.


[Mary Robinette] So, speaking of go to stress patterns, this is where we should break for the book of the week.


[Mary Robinette] Make that segue happen somehow. The book is The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. I wanted to recommend this one this week, because… So, the book is really beautiful in a lot of different ways. One thing is that she is doing… She has these very, very different voices happening from different characters, different POV’s. The other thing is it’s set on a planet that is tidally locked. So there is a dayside and there is a nightside. All of humanity who is living on this planet lives in the twilight area. The daylight does not change over the course of the day. The daylight changes depending on where in town you are. So your relationship with the sun and with the night in this world as this totally different feeling. Day brain versus night brain, again, like those mean completely different things. I love that, because of how much exploration she is doing about the way our environment shapes our connotations and contexts. It’s a wonderful book. It’s a coming-of-age story. There’s revolution… There is a revolution in this one.


[Mary Robinette] Highly recommended. It got all kinds of critical acclaim. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders.

[Amal] That is so wonderful. I cannot help now but imagine a planet as a giant brain…

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Amal] A right hemisphere and a left hemisphere and all of the in between this that that entails and stuff.

[Amal] but, yeah. So this is actually I think a great segue for talking about… So you’ve talked about these different ways in which you experience like flow states or being in the zone and stuff like that. I want to basically shape that into a question, which is, how do we activate night brains? Is there a way to do that, and to do that specifically either to write poetry if that something that’s intimidating or to overcome snags in prose. My experience of this… I developed this particular exercise that I want to take us to partly because I was stuck writing a short story. I had just… I was really snagged on an issue of character motivation or of plot development essentially. Did not have Dan’s intensive courses to refer to, on the subjects of character arcs and things, at the time. So I found myself in order to overcome this snag and what was really a structural problem by leaning into the prose line instead and trying to just let the language of the story that I was writing carry me over the hump that I was experiencing. By doing that, I felt like what tipped me over into being able to solve the other problems was by just languishing essentially in the language, in the prose. I felt that that was kind of tipping away from the anxieties and concerns of a day brain oriented sense of how am I going to solve this problem with a night brain oriented sense of what if this sentence felt like pearls slipping off a string? What if this sentence felt in these ways? What if I just let myself flow out of this and just let it carry me into the next thing that’s going to happen and then I’ll solve it later? I feel like that’s something that could potentially be useful to anyone who’s writing anything, essentially.

[Amal] Towards that end, I want to bring us to the homework of this episode. Which is a night brain activation exercise. What I want you to do is to either, if you are currently in a project, currently in the middle of some writing project, I want you to find a piece of prose in there that is giving you trouble. Maybe it’s actually the spot that you are at right now in your work in progress. I want you to take the last sentence that you have on the page and isolate it. Put it on a different page and just have like a blank screen following that one sentence. Then I want you to put yourself in a dark place. I want you to like dim the lights. I want you to close the blinds. I want you to try and put yourself in a space where you are as unaware of your surroundings as is possible for you to be. Then I want you to listen to a recording of a poem. I will provide one shortly. Then I want you to, in response to that poem, write automatically, unselfconsciously, for five minutes. I want you to think about it like singing onto the page. I wanted to just let whatever that last sentence that you had there was, let it just lead you into some other world of language in response to this thing that I’m going to read you. So what I’m going to read you now is a poem called Moon Fishing by Lisel Mueller.

When the moon was full they came to the water.

some with pitchforks, some with rakes,

some with sieves and ladles,

and one with a silver cup.

And they fished til a traveler passed them and said,


to catch the moon you must let your women

spread their hair on the water —

even the wily moon will leap to that bobbing

net of shimmering threads,

gasp and flop till its silver scales

lie black and still at your feet.”

And they fished with the hair of their women

till a traveler passed them and said,


do you think the moon is caught lightly,

with glitter and silk threads?

You must cut out your hearts and bait your hooks

with those dark animals;

what matter you lose your hearts to reel in your dream?”

And they fished with their tight, hot hearts

till a traveler passed them and said,


what good is the moon to a heartless man?

Put back your hearts and get on your knees

and drink as you never have,

until your throats are coated with silver

and your voices ring like bells.”

And they fished with their lips and tongues

until the water was gone

and the moon had slipped away

in the soft, bottomless mud.

[copied from]


[Amal] Now write.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.