In my last post, I described a journey I took to better understand the science of reading and what insights I could gain from it as a writer. I found the topic fascinating enough to keep going.
What about writing? What’s happening in our brains while we produce stories? What could I learn from this to be a better writer?
Writing and the brain
The process of creative formulation and physical writing lights up a whole lot of the human brain. Language, cognition, memory, visual processing, planning and control, and the ability to make associations between unrelated concepts all come into play. The prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, Broca’s area, posterior cingulate cortex, and hippocampus.
A small number of studies have looked at the concept of “story creation” and what areas of the brain might be involved. In one study from 2005 (Howard-Jones et al), participants were presented with a set of three words and asked to create a story based around them while getting a brain MRI. The researchers found activity not just in the brain’s language region but also the region responsible for making associations between unrelated concepts.
In a later study in 2013 (Shah et al), participants were given 30 words, asked to brainstorm a story, and then given two minutes to write during an MRI. The researchers found activity in the region responsible for planning and control during the brainstorming.
Writers are born and made
One can’t consider the brain of a writer without wondering if there’s something different about it that makes that person predisposed to being one.
The popular conception is that writers are born with all their talent, creativity can’t be taught, and inspiration arrives like lightning allowing the mad writer to crank out a great work.
The reality is that while creativity is a function of intelligence, the majority of people have creative problem-solving skills, and the actual skills involved in writing can be taught. Writers do not have to write in a vacuum but can benefit from criticism as long as it is thoroughly constructive. Writing is hard work, and writers have more control over their work than might be felt during the process.
In fact, practice makes perfect, and writing is no exception, as borne out by research suggesting veteran writers have brains tuned for writing. If you’re like me, you’re a better writer today than you were last year, and not as good a writer as you’ll be next year.
In one study led by Martin Lotze, German researchers observed brain activity during the writing process and discovered that brain activity is different between novices and veterans. The brain activity of professional writers is similar in some ways to the brains of other skilled people like musicians or athletes, Lotze concluded.
In short, like a violinist who has to make a lot of racket before getting good, be prepared to grow as a writer by writing.
What else can we learn about how the writing brain behaves?
Fortunately for us, there has been an explosion of psychological research in this area in recent years. In one study, researchers at the University of California attempted to profile the psychology of the creative writer by evaluating 30 distinguished writers over three days in a “live-in” assessment.
They found five common traits: possessed a high intellectual capacity, valued intellectual and cognitive matters, valued independence, had high verbal fluency and quality of expression, and enjoyed aesthetic impressions.
In another qualitative study, researcher Jane Piirto studied writers listed in the Directory of American Poets and Writers. She collected and analyzed interviews, memoirs, and biographies.
She too found five distinguishing traits: high levels of ambition (and envy!), high concern with philosophical issues such as the meaning of life, high levels of frankness and risk-taking, high value on empathy, and a keen sense of humor.
Yes, writers are awesome.
But… they’re also more likely to have certain mental issues.
Researcher A.M. Ludwig compared 59 female writers to 59 matched controls and found the writers suffered from higher levels of depression, mania, panic attacks, generalized anxiety, eating disorders, and drug abuse. Members of artistic professions, he found in subsequent research, were twice as likely to suffer from two or more psychological disorders as people in other professions.
At the same time, it is interesting to note that despite this, writers remain prolific, which is a sign of resilience, health, and strength of ego.
Fortunately for us, writing is also therapeutic. It’s commonly used as a therapeutic tool based on the premise that writing’s one feelings causes emotional trauma to fade along with growing self-awareness and self-development. And it just feels good.
Now let’s get into the creative process. The process of writing is highly varied depending on the writer, but scientists have attempted to identify the stages in the creative process.
One of the most popular is the Wallace 4-step process: preparation (gather information), incubation (subconscious works on ideas), illumination (make connection between ideas), and implementation (ideas become reality via critical thinking). To which creative frustration may be added (is this story working?).
M. Csikszentmihalyi conducted a qualitative study of creative people, including prominent writers, who described experiencing “flow” during the process of writing. The writers described flow as a state of extreme concentration, challenge, skill, and reward.
SK Perry advised writers on how to get flow going. Be passionate about your project, get feedback, engage in preparation rituals—such as stopping work in the middle of a scene or sentence, allowing you to start again quickly next time—and minimize anxiety about a critical reception for your work.
I think that last one is a crusher—the fear nobody will like what you’ve created—necessitating very supportive and constructive feedback.
One way to get creativity flowing is to become exposed to others’ creative ideas. In one MRI study, 31 participants were asked to come up with alternate uses for everyday objects. Some of the participants were shown ideas of others, which resulted in increased neural network activity and subsequent greater originality.
For writers, this might mean reading the work of other authors, joining writing groups, attending writing conventions, and finding a constructive Ideal Reader.
Sometimes, creativity doesn’t come easily, and it’s hard to get into the flow. Writers call this “writer’s block.” But is this a problem of producing words, or of coming up with what happens next?
Some writers freeze up at that commitment because of fear or lack of confidence. Again, that sense all this hard work will only lead to harsh criticism.
“Writer’s block is a highly treatable condition,” wrote Dr. P. Huston, University of Ottawa Heart Institute. “A systematic approach can help to alleviate anxiety, build confidence, and give people the information they need to work productively.”
He wrote a whitepaper on how to treat writer’s block. The document was aimed at academic writers, but I think it’s readily applicable to fiction.
Basically, he says if there’s a mild blockage, establish realistic expectations, allow yourself to be imperfect (write a draft), sidestep whatever is blocking you, and optimize your writing conditions. If there is moderate blockage, imagine you are someone you admire writing, talk through your work with a sympathetic ear, write stream of consciousness to prime the pump, or take a break. And if the blockage is severe, consider cognitive or behavioral therapy or imposing a system of negative consequences (such as an app where you have to give money to a charity you hate if you miss a writing goal).
“What an astonishing thing a book is,” said scientist Carl Sagan. “It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
Thank you for joining me on this journey to uncover the scientific foundation for this magic, which I hope you found as inspiring as I did.