Art + Mind

Baltimore writers to help scientists learn how brain processes stories

Winning work in new writing contest will help advance neuroscience; deadline extended to July 31

Jill Rosen
Office phone
Cell phone

Winners of a new Baltimore writing contest will help Johns Hopkins University neuroscientists learn what happens in the brain when people read stories.

The inaugural fMRI Writing Prize, created by a team of Johns Hopkins writers and scientists, is now open to city residents, high school students and adults. Winners will not only get a cash prize and have their stories published in The Hopkins Review literary magazine, the stories will be a fundamental part of a scientific study investigating people's brain activity while they read stories. Winners will also tour the Hopkins lab doing the research and receive a framed fMRI image showing the fMRI activity in the brain when people read their story.

Blue skies with bright white clouds, looking up toward the Gilman Hall clock tower
Flash fiction writing workshop

There will be an online flash fiction writing workshop and information session on the contest at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18. Register here.

The award aims to spark creativity in both art and science on campus and throughout the city of Baltimore.

"There are overlapping questions about what makes enduring art and how art affects our memory," said Dora Malech, contest co-creator and editor in chief of The Hopkins Review and an associate professor in The Writing Seminars.

Janice Chen, the contest co-creator and a cognitive neuroscientist, will tailor an experiment to fit the winning stories. Chen's research explores how people remember written stories and movies.

"One thing we're often doing is looking at patterns of brain activity when you remember the past," Chen said. "If you have read a story or seen a movie and you're later talking about it, the brain activity that was present when you originally saw that story or movie will reappear. We're mapping those activity patterns and trying to figure out how the content of what you remember can be decoded."

The contest seeks previously unpublished short story entries, specifically in a genre known as "flash fiction." Story topics are entirely up the writers. Plots can "complex, ambiguous, or nuanced," and language "dynamic and surprising," the rules state.

"We're realizing that when you have a narrative or a movie that's more information rich, there are more brain regions engaged during recollection and the types of features you decode in the activity patterns are different, compared to simpler material" Chen said. "It's becoming more and more popular to use complex stimuli like stories in neuroscience experiments because we have more sophisticated techniques for analyzing the brain data now."

The contest, whose name is shorthand for both "functional magnetic resonance imaging" and "fiction made to read and investigate," is free to enter. There will be two winners—one each in the high school student and adult categories. Entries will be accepted through July 31.

There will be an online flash fiction writing workshop and information session on the contest at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 18. Register here.

More information about the contest: