The Science Behind What Writing Does to Your Brain

By Erika Rasso | Articles

Feb 23
brain

Have you ever written for several hours, then emerged from your creative stupor feeling like you’ve just run a marathon?

I tend to hang around a lot of writers, and our routine is as follows: Wake up > eat > write > nap > eat > write > sleep. Notice that nap wedged in the middle of writing? Yeah, that’s necessary.

It could be because we’ve been staring at a screen for hours on end, or maybe it’s the growing cramp in our hands, but if you catch us sans-nap, we’re gonna look like zombies.

From start to finish, the writing process is exhausting. We all know how difficult a first draft can be, and the edits that follow are painful and seemingly never-ending. But that’s not the only reason writing drains the life out of us.

The fact of the matter is, writing can be a very strenuous activity on the brain.

Before we get into the segment I’d like to call “This is your brain on drugs writing,” we have a couple myths to bust.

Myth #1 – Humans Only Use 10% of Their Brain

If you’ve seen the movie Lucy, or Limitless, or the T.V. show Limitless, or The Matrix, or pretty much any sci-fi movie that involves brain power, you might hold the misconception that humans only use a limited portion of their brains. This means the possibilities, should we be able to access the full extent of our brain power are… I guess you could say… limitless.

That’s a load of hooey.

Neuroscientists exist to study the brain; they’ve been doing it for years and have gotten pretty good at it. They take their work seriously, but if you ask any one of them about the “unused section of your brain,” they’ll probably laugh at you.

According to neurologist Barry Gordon in an article by Scientific American, the entirety of our brain remains active “almost all the time,” and we use every part of it.

This is doubly true when you’re writing, but we’ll get into that in a bit. Your main takeaway from this busted myth is that we do use all of our brains, and it is possible to operate at full capacity.

As a side note, though, never write a story about accessing the full extent of your brain. It’s overdone.

But I digress.

Myth #2 – The Left Brain and the Right Brain

The second myth that we need to bust is a very widely held belief. That of the left brain and the right brain.

Many believe that the human population can be split into two categories: the analytical left-brain thinkers and the creative right-brain thinkers.

While some people can be defined by their logic and some by their creativity, it’s not the side of the brain they most use that gives them those traits.

Yes, it’s true that the brain has a left side and a right side, and that they even have some different functions (strong emphasis on some). However, one side cannot operate without the other, one side cannot dictate your personality, and there is no way for one side to be “more dominant.” That’s not how brains work.

So, when people say that writers, artists, or (insert creative profession here) are brilliant because their left brain and right brain are working together, it’s like saying someone is alive because their heart and lungs are working together.

DUH. THAT’S WHAT BRAINS DO.

And that leads us to the main point of this article.

Your Brain on Writing

We are lucky to live in an age of technology, invention, and discovery. Scientists yearn to understand how the world works and how the people who inhabit the world operate. They run tests and conduct studies until they find evidence that satisfies them.

Enter Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany.

Martin Lotze and his merry band of researchers sought to discover what the brain looked like when engaged in a writing activity, comparing a novice writer’s brain to an expert writer’s brain as they wrote.

Lotze had done multiple studies on artists’ brains, but never writers, because of the intricacies of the available technology.

To pull off this study, Lotze had to find a way to take a brain scan —more specifically an fMRI — while his subjects were writing. This would require that their heads be in a gigantic, magnetized device, with limited movement, and it would require that they see what they are writing. See the challenge?

Lotze found a way to use a series of mirrors attached to the machine (and a specially designed desk) that would allow the subjects to see their writing without having to move their head around. Then, all Lotze needed were volunteers.

To gather a control level for his subjects’ brain waves while writing by hand, he had his 28 writers copy an excerpt. After the baseline brain activity was gathered, he had the subjects brainstorm and write a short story for three minutes.

According to the research, some areas of the brain became more active when the writers were asked to come up with their own stories rather than just copy text.

During the brainstorming session, the occipital lobe (which helps with visualization) became more active — meaning that the subjects might have been “seeing” the scenes they were writing in their heads.

When the actual creating began, the hippocampus and the front of the brain became active. Lotze suggests that these regions were gathering factual information to include in the story and sorting through the different characters and plotlines available to the writer.

The research shows that different parts of your brain are active at different stages of the writing process. If shown a photo of your brain, a neuroscientist could probably figure out whether you’ve been writing or not, and how far you’ve gotten in the process.

But What About Expert Writers?

The ones to whom brainstorming comes as second nature, and who can juggle characters and plotlines more effortlessly.

Lotze and his team moved their study to the University of Hildesheim and their prestigious writing program. They recruited 20 expert writers (or, those who were attending this prestigious program) to participate in the same study, allowing Lotze and his team to discover whether expertise affects brain activity.

What they found was interesting.

Muscle Memory

Ok, so the brain isn’t technically a muscle, but it often behaves like one.

Expert athletes have trained their muscles to perform certain functions, and expert creatives can do the same with their brain.

Lotze and his team of researchers discovered that, while writing down their stories, the expert writers used an additional part of their brain — the caudate nucleus.

The caudate nucleus is the region of the brain that handles automatic functions, or functions that are practiced over time. For example, the act of handwriting letters on a page. You learned the letters when you were a toddler, traced them, and learned how to write them yourself. After years of practice, it’s now an automatic function. When that region is active, it means there is some form of memory involved.

What kind of memories are expert writers pulling from? It’s kind of hard to know what someone is thinking when their brain is cycling through ideas, sentences, and the many automatic functions it takes to write. Our technology is advanced, but not that advanced.

We could hypothesize that they are pulling memories from sentences they’ve formulated in the past, stories they’ve thought up before, or maybe even techniques they’ve learned about storytelling. But we may never know.

They also discovered that, in the expert writer’s brain, the regions that deal with speech and word formation (known as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) are used more frequently in the brainstorming stage compared to novice writers, who tend to visualize in pictures more. This could mean that, before even putting pen to paper, expert writers are already thinking about words or phrases they are going to use to tell their story.

It could also mean that expert writers have trained their brain to see things differently, to be more language oriented, and to visualize not just with the occipital lobe.

Training Your Brain

If you’re not a professional writer, or haven’t been for very long, chances are your brain operates like the novice writers’ in Lotze’s study.

How do you get from novice to expert? How do you train your brain and activate your caudate nucleus?

You need three things:

  1. Time
  2. Willpower
  3. Several hundred pieces of paper

Ok, so maybe you need several hundred things (if we’re counting every sheet of paper you’re going to use).

The point is, training your brain takes practice, maybe even years of it. Ever heard of the rule that you need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert? Spoiler alert: scientists debunked that a while back, but the base idea still stands. It may take 1,000 hours. It may take 10,000; it may even take 50,000. It depends on your brain plasticity (or your brain’s ability to change over time). Either way, you’ll need patience and a whole lot of willpower to get through it.

Here are some activities you can do to help expand your mind and train that brain!

  • Free write every day for at least two minutes a day. You can write whatever you want in those two plus minutes. You could write a haiku, a diary entry, or something a little more ambitious. (That isn’t to say haikus aren’t ambitious.) The goal is to get used to the act of writing and coming up with content as you go.
  • Read your #writinggoals. If you’re a writer, you’re a reader, and all readers have their idols. Read the kind of content you aspire to write, and read a lot of it. Your brain will absorb the vocabulary, syntax, and general style of the writing you’re reading and naturally incorporate it into your own work.
  • Look things up. Artists, athletes, and even scientists are always learning new techniques to help them get better. Writers can do the same. Expand your vocabulary by flipping through a thesaurus or a dictionary, study grammar books, and definitely look something up if you don’t know it. Push yourself to learn more about your craft, and you’ll grow because of it.
  • Overwhelm your brain. The brain is pretty damn powerful. If you push it, chances are it will rise to the occasion. Test your limits by writing for an hour longer than you think you can. Read Derrida. Write a haiku! Treat your brain like a muscle and do reps until you just can’t do it anymore. Just like a muscle, your brain will grow.
  • Don’t think about it too much. If you put in the work, your brain will grow on its own. Your subconscious will pick up on what you are doing and adjust accordingly. Trust your brain. It’s gotten you this far, hasn’t it?

Work Hard, Play Hard

If there is anything the research tells us, it’s that our brain is one very active organ when we’re writing. Both the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere work together to handle the comprehension, brainstorming, story creation, and physical writing of a story. Not 10% of your brain, ALL of your brain.

No wonder you feel exhausted after writing for a few hours. Your brain has just run a marathon!

Moreover, the research on expert writers tells us that some can actually operate on a sort of autopilot. It proves that writing is a skill that takes practice and repetition to train your brain before it becomes easier.

To become an expert writer, you’ll have to work at it, dedicating a lot of time and patience to the craft. Luckily, all that practice has scientifically proven results.

So keep working hard, but make sure you take a break every so often. Your brain deserves it!

Photo credit: svedoliver

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About the Author

Erika Rasso graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.A. in English and marketing. She has worked as a writing consultant, an editor for a literary journal, and an editor for an academic journal. In her free time, Erika enjoys writing short stories and screenplays (though mostly she just watches WAY too many shows on Netflix). She is currently working as a freelance editor, and is the Content Producer and Social Media Manager for Craft Your Content. You can visit her website to see more of her work.

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  • JCJ87

    Amazing article! Very informative, but I do have to say that the left and right sides of the brain do serve very different purposes in SOME aspects. The two hemispheres communicate with one another through the Corpus Collosum. The stronger the white matter connections in the CC the better the brain will communicate with itself. Emotions and creative expressions are mostly originated in the right side of the brain, while the words and grammar skills to put it on parchment are mostly controlled by the left side of the brain and the Prefrontal Cortex (the part right behind your eyes and forehead). But yes, the more one writes the stronger these connections become (muscle memory); the stronger these connections become will be evident in the person’s increased writing abilities. Hopefully the writer does not smoke too much weed… for it is destructive to these connections over time, but it does create more brain plasticity.. All things in moderation. Except writing, do that shit as often as possible! haha!

    Pax,
    Jordan

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    • Erika Rasso

      That’s some great info Jordan! Thanks for reading and commenting.