Monday, June 23, 2014

Your Brain when Writing

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne


A recent article in the New York Times describing a study on the neuroscience of creative writing ('This is Your Brain on Writing') provides an intriguing glimpse of what happens to your brain when writing fiction. I guess it wasn't something I'd ever thought about in scientific terms at least - but, if this study is correct, there appears to be a number of similarities (in terms of brain function) between writers and people who are skilled at other actions such as sports or music. The study also found  differences in brain activity between professionally trained writers and novice writers who were asked to continue a short piece of fiction after a few minutes of brainstorming. What were these differences? 

Well, for starters they found that during the brainstorming section of the study, novice writers activated their visual centres of the brain, while the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions of the brain involved with speech. The researchers concluded that novices 'watched' their stories like a film inside their heads while the 'experts' were narrating their stories with an inner voice.

Secondly, when the writers started to actually write their stories, areas of the brain crucial for retrieving factual information and holding multiple pieces of information (possibly characters and plot lines) became active.

Finally, they also found that in the expert writers the caudate nucleus (the region of the brain that plays a vital role in how the brain learns and which activates as a skill becomes more automatic with practice) 'lit up' in a similar way to that observed in people who were experts in music or sports.

Now, creative writing is a notoriously difficult thing to study in the brain - for a start, you don't usually perform the creative process while lying still inside an MRI machine - and it also sounds from this article like some experts believe the results of the study are too crude to be all that meaningful. Others however feel the study provides some real insight into the regions of the brain that 'light up' when a person is involved in the writing process. 

For me, the most intriguing aspect of this study was that a researcher even attempted to look at what the brain does when a person is being 'creative' - although I so wonder whether we can ever really understand how creativity works in terms of the brain (for a start it seems to me that many writers access their creative process in very different ways). To be honest, I was also a little depressed by the novice versus expert results. I tend to be a very visual person and so I fear, had I been included in the study, my brain would have acted like the 'novice' during the brainstorming sessions at least (after my years of writing practice that seems depressing!)

Who knows, maybe one day neuroscientists will be able to use their studies to create a designer drug that will make us all awesome creative writers...or maybe they'll identify the crucial area of the brain that needs to activate in order to become a bestselling author...Then again, perhaps delving too deep into the brain of a writer isn't exactly a good idea (we can invent just too many ways for this research to be used for evil...)

So what research would you like to see in the science of creativity? I think it would be cool to see whether the brains of brilliant writers work differently to mere mortal folks like me and (as brilliance so often comes with madness) whether mental illness has an impact on the creative process.

What about you? If you could be included in a study on the neuroscience of writing, what kind of study would it be?


24 comments:

  1. Thanks for the link to the article. Very interesting.

    You mentioned being depressed by the perceived differences between "novice" and "expert" brain activity. It sounds like the study did not control for the type of writer (genre vs. literary) in the "expert" category. (The "experts" all came from a creative writing program.) I would suspect that thriller writers would be more visual, and literary writers more inner voice - speech oriented. In any case, an interesting study.

    Lisa Cron (WIRED FOR STORY) has a book that supposedly uses new knowledge in neuroscience to help us "hook the reader."

    As for your question, I would like to see a study that uses the subject as their own control (i.e. compare themselves to themselves) and looks at different foods and activities (exercise, caffeine, meditation, writing exercises, etc) to see which rev up creativity the most.

    There is a fine line between creativity and insanity. My wife tells me I am coming very close to crossing that line.

    Thanks for a great post.

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    1. That would be a pretty cool study - creativity is such an individualized thing isn't it! I do know I'm a more visual person so it's probably not unexpected that I'd use this in my writing but, as I wasn't in the study, it would be interesting to know just what parts of my brain activate when I'm writing!

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  2. Fascinating. Thanks for sharing that. No need to be depressed. It reminds me a little of Oliver Sacks' work, especially "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." Bottom line, as smart as we've gotten, we still only know a fraction of how that pile of gray matter in our heads works. There's still so much more that we don't know than we do. It's fascinating – and a little scary.

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    1. Definitely in the 'interesting but kinda scary too' bucket!

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  3. Interesting article. I participate in sports and music, as well as writing. I suspect that the similarities in activities have something to do with Flow (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi)--being totally absorbed in your work.

    Steve makes some good points. I agree with him that you shouldn't get "depressed" about being visual, Clare. Who cares what's going on in your brain? It's results that matter.

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    1. True enough Eric:) and I do think the same 'flow' works across all sorts of activities that involve skill and creativity.

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  4. I can see how we are close to athletes. Before sitting for an extended period of time at the computer, we should be doing warm-up exercises for our arms and finger stretches. We are subject to repetitive strain injury in a similar manner to sportsmen. I'd think we were just as close to artists as to these folks and musicians.

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    1. I've actually had more 'writing injuries' than those related to sports - lol!

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  5. I underwent one of those studies, where they scan and x-ray and stuff while you're creating stuff.
    Still have one of the X-Ray pictures as a matter of fact.


    Interested in becoming an audiobook narrator? Check out Episode 4 of the "Voices In My Head" video podcast where I talk about what it takes to become an audiobook narrator, with running commentary by Roger the Squirrel.

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  6. I had to click, Basil...and now I wish I hadn't. Liked to have wet my pants laughing.

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  7. I'd love to see whether the "pleasure centers" in the brain light up, and what changes occur depending on whether one is "in the flow" of writing, versus a struggling phase. Thank you for alerting us about this article, Clare!

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  8. One thing that wasn't mentioned was the left/right brain theories. It is assumed that creativity is housed in the right brain. But, recent studies show that the two hemispheres are not so divided as was once thought. They tend to balance one another.

    Given that, I'd say many writers have different styles and those styles light up different parts of the brain. Writing historical fiction versus fantasy might take different levels of creativity (or sanity). Is one more creative than the other? Because one thinks visually instead of verbally is one more creative than others?

    I think a lot more needs to be done to understand how our very complicated and mysterious brains work. But, I'm excited to see the new studies. Learning more about our brains certainly can't hurt us!

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

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    1. Our brains really are amazing things:)

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  9. Clare--thank you for this post. Aside from being interesting, it also serves to support one of the few advantages to getting old: seeing something of what's on the horizon, and feeling relief at knowing I won't be there for it.

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  10. That experts narrate their stories while novice writers tend to "see" their stories is interesting. Maybe that's why first person point of view is more appealling to the novice writer, at least this novice writer; ie, built-in narration. .

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  11. Interesting stuff, Clare - thanks for sharing! :-)

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  12. I think if they could figure out a way to attach a video to the brain so it transmit the story exactly like the writer sees it, it would be an awesome tool. Maybe there wouldn't be so many bad movies made from great books.

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    1. That would make my life so much easier - as what is on the page never matches up to what's in my head!

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  13. Thanks for pointing out the interesting article. I noticed what Steve Hooley noticed, that the "expert" writers were around 25 years old. All still quite young, but an intriguing study.

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  14. Yes, I wondered too if the brains studied of expert writers were older than the novice? I'm sure the brain ages (matures) along with all the other parts..more wrinkles in the brain?? I don't see anything wrong with picturing the story as you write it, do you? Thanks for sharing this informative article.

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  15. This was an interesting article in the NY Times. I am currently reading about visual thinkers, which include accounts of many big inventors and innovative people through history. Brain wiring and structure are different between visual thinkers and linear thinkers. Often these different kinds of people learn under different environments and in different patterns. Dyslexics are often in the visual thinking group. However, not all visual thinkers are dyslexic.

    I often wonder who out there at TKZ are visual thinkers.

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