Shelves of half-formed story ideas, baskets of lovely and uncommon words, filing cabinets filled with grammar rules. … If the mind of a writer was a physical place, chances are these things would feature pretty heavily.
But, as we may forget, the mind is a physical place—our brain.
Our brains contain our thoughts, ideas, emotions, personalities—basically everything that makes us, well, us. Including the parts that make us writers.
There’s just something about the mind of a writer that allows for the flow of new ideas and creative turns of phrase that don’t come naturally to everyone.
So, what is it?
I’m not the only one to have asked that question—it has fascinated scientists for decades. Join me as I take a look at a few studies that tell us what it is about the mind of the writer that makes it so unique.
Busting the Right Brain/Left Brain Myth
Everyone has heard of the left hemisphere vs. right hemisphere theory of brain dominance.
You’ve probably aligned yourself with one side and feel a little bit smug about it, if not taken a quiz promising to tell you whether you belong to the artsy, creative right-brainers or the methodical, logical left-brainers.
Since writing is a creative activity, if you’re a writer, it’s likely you believe you fall into the right-brain camp.
Well, it turns out that you’ll have to wave goodbye to that part of your identity. In reality, people actually use both sides of their brain equally, and the two sides aren’t as different as the theory states. That’s right, you so-called right-brainers, you’re just as mentally ambidextrous as everyone else.
If being exceptionally creative can’t be explained by right-brain dominance, is there anything that sets the gray matter of creative writers apart?
As a matter of fact, there is.
Just because our brain activity can’t be divided as neatly in half as we once thought, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain areas of our brain that are more associated with creativity than others, as researchers are discovering.
Rewriting the Mind
The subjective, individual nature of creativity makes it hard to study. However, that hasn’t stopped Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany from taking functional MRIs (brain scans) of people performing various creative acts, such as singing, playing the piano, and, of most interest to us, writing.
He conducted his research on both novice and professional writers, finding that the more seasoned writers used their brains differently while writing than the beginners.
We’ve looked at this study before to figure out how we can take our minds (and writing) from novice to expert (spoiler alert: practice!), but I would like to focus on a few other key discoveries from Lotze’s study.
Compared to the novice brains, the brains of the expert writers showed additional activity in the caudate nucleus, which is responsible for automatic functions, and the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, which deal with language and word formation.
This means that the professional writers literally changed the way that their brains work while writing.
They became language-oriented, thinking more in words than in pictures. Unlike the pseudoscience behind the right/left brain theory of creativity, this is a concrete way in which brains of writers differ from the general population.
Though Lotze’s research provided valuable insight into the inner workings of creative people, he certainly wasn’t the first scientist to be fascinated by the minds of writers.
A famous 1960s study by psychologist and creativity researcher Frank X. Barron sought to discover what it was about highly creative people that set them apart from everybody else. He invited several leading architects, mathematicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs, as well as writers Truman Capote, William Carlos Williams, and Frank O’Connor to spend some time living at the University of Berkeley Campus being observed by scientists.
After several days of observation and evaluations of the subjects’ lives, habits, and personalities, Barron found that the traits these creative people shared fell into several categories. Highlights include:
- an openness to one’s inner life
- a preference for complexity and ambiguity
- a high tolerance for disorder and disarray
- the ability to find order in chaos
- a willingness to take risks
According to Barron, the creative person is “both more primitive and more cultured, more destructive and more constructive, occasionally crazier and yet adamantly saner, than the average person.”
Barron performed a subsequent study on creative writers specifically, which underlined that quote while yielding even more fascinating results.
I don’t mean to alarm you, but it turned out that writers tend to score in the top 15 percent of the general population on measures of psychopathology, such as depression, mania, schizophrenia, and paranoia.
Although this suggests that writers should have a high occurrence of mental illness, they also tend to have top scores in measures of mental health.
How is this possible?
The key is introspection.
Increased self-awareness and being comfortable with the darker aspects of themselves leads to some of the characteristics that society associates with mental illness, but also to a complexity of personality that can have some seriously creative results.
So, to improve creativity in your writing, look inward.
Learning (From) Yourself
Don’t be afraid to explore the scarier parts of your mind and personality—there are also loads of benefits to introspection that don’t even have anything to do with writing.
The good news is that introspection is something that you can practice. Taking small steps such as carving out a quiet five minutes to think, asking yourself open-ended questions about your beliefs and emotions, and withholding judgement on whatever you discover will have you on the path to a more grounded sense of identity.
Being in-tune with yourself can help your writing in other ways, too.
The common advice given to writers of “write what you know” can certainly make writing feel a lot more accessible. But according to Lisa Cron, author of Story Genius, “write what you know” really means to write what you know emotionally.
Whether you’re writing a novel or a sales pitch, if you want to hook your reader, write it from a place of authenticity. This means letting your voice shine through by writing in a way that feels natural to you. If how and what we write is an expression of ourselves, make sure you’re not trying to express something that isn’t there.
Shared emotions are the quickest, most effective way to capture your reader’s attention, and tapping into your inner world will only make this easier.
Which Comes First?
You’ve heard of the chicken-and-egg debate—well, now it’s time for a more important question:
Does writing creatively mold the brain, or are certain brains more likely to be good at writing creatively?
The answer is likely both.
While Barron’s results imply that some brains are better suited to writing in the first place, Lotze’s suggest that we can indeed change our brains through and for the act of writing, which is good news for all of us who don’t consider ourselves natural creative geniuses.
It’s time to stop taking our creativity for granted with things like the right/left brain theory, and start cultivating it through lots of writing practice and (though it may sound cheesy) learning to get in touch with our inner selves.
You’re probably a lot more complex, ambiguous, creative, and less conventional than you think.
Now, doesn’t that sound like someone who could write something worth reading?