Unraveling the Mysteries of the Writing Brain

The Creating Brain: Click on the image to watch a TED video about how the brain works

The Creating Brain: Click on the image to watch a TED video about how the brain works.

In writing process theory’s recursive “Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” discussion, cogitation occurs before the act of writing.

It might not be conscious cogitation, but your brain is most definitely engaged, and it’s precisely the cognitive complexities involved in writing that make it not only the most complex skill humans possess, but also, not coincidentally, the most glorified.

Society puts writers on pedestals, granting them what French philosopher Pierre Bordieu calls ‘cultural capital,’ largely because we’re impressed when anyone can make something so seemingly difficult look so easy. We are also daunted by the mystery of writing; since we don’t know where inspiration comes from, we imbue it with magical properties.

In terms of what you’ve been told is true about writing, you are both conscious and unconscious of the societal influences you’ve been raised with. Your beliefs provide a mirror for the things you’ve been told. You aren’t going to believe or agree with everything you hear, but quite often, you’re not consciously aware of all of the messages you received, most of which are subsequently reinforced by society, just as they might be reinforced by your own life experiences.

The question when it comes to the brain, though, is where do these beliefs reside? It turns out that memory and memory-retrieval play a large part in forming our unconscious thoughts. These unconscious thoughts influence us much more than was previously believed.

Long story short, you and I, everyone in Western society, as a matter of fact, were taught to believe quite a few things about self-expression and creativity. Some of those things aren’t true, and in fact, the things that aren’t true only serve to limit and restrict you when you want to express yourself. Nowhere is the stigma cast by society as strongly negative as it is on the writer.

Once you honestly believe that only some rare and lucky people are innately talented, you’ve closed the door to your own potential. Although it is clear from research on the brain there is such a thing as an innate ability, that isn’t the endpoint, it’s only the rawest of beginnings. Our brains are all innately programmed for language skills, for example; how will those language skills be developed? How many neural connections will be encouraged by the people around us as our brains form?

One of the myths we’re told to believe is that it’s a mystery how creative geniuses can be significantly more inspired than the average person, with prolific flow that somehow never falters until the day the person dies. One of the things that’s wrong with this idea about how creativity functions is that the people who continue to write about “genius” not only sound star-struck, they typically write about the “genius” ahistorically and acontextually. This one simple fact does everyone who is creative a disservice, and I’ll explain why.

A recent example of this fault in researcher’s perceptions about creativity is to be found in the otherwise extremely helpful book about neuroscience’s role in understanding creativity, The Creative Brain by Nancy C. Andreasen.  

Andreasen provides a handful of examples of what genius looks like. Unfortunately, the creative people she chooses all come from the Romantic Era, which automatically means they describe their own creative abilities in the requisite dramatic, inexact, and emotionally-laden metaphors of their era. (To rephrase in once-popular parlance, the Romantics were extremely emo.)

Andreasen, predictably, relies on Amadeus Mozart as an example of creative genius. Not for the first time in creativity research is Mozart used as a fertile example of what we mean when we use the word ‘genius’. Unfortunately, Andreasen, a medical doctor and Ph.D., but not a “Freudian or psychoanalyst,” as she points out, cannot expand her subject to include environmental influences Mozart was surrounded by as he matured.  

In spite of the fact that it’s less popular to assert, it is nonetheless accurate to say that competition and collaboration, the kind found in a family of musicians, leads to spurred creation. In addition, no one has ever been able to analyse the myriad emotions that led to Mozart’s renowned desire and interest in learning everything he could about music.

It’s rare for these environmental factors to be taken into account when individual genius is assessed, because, for one thing, it’s less glamorous to revision the creator as anything but a demi-god. However, it’s also much more complicated to speculate that Mozart might have been more competitive than his siblings. He also clearly had one important personal characteristic that has more to do with creative output than any other: he was curious, with an insatiable desire to learn everything he could about music and composition.   

Everyone starts somewhere, even musical prodigies. Mozart's earliest compositions were vetted and criticized by other musicians, and the young composer was surrounded each day by music.

Everyone starts somewhere, even musical prodigies. Mozart’s earliest compositions were vetted and criticized by other musicians, and the young composer was surrounded each day by music.

Surface clues into the ‘mystery of genius’ Andreasen focuses on about Mozart are those we have all been taught to privilege when it comes to what ‘genius’ means: productivity and uniqueness.

It’s as though, when assessing Mozart’s creative force, it’s assumed he never left his room, never listened to anyone else’s music, never practiced, never had a bad day of composing when he threw everything away. In other words, his real life experiences are elided to perpetuate the myth of smooth, flowing, “pure” genius.

Later in the book, however, Andreasen does begin to unravel at least some of the mystery surrounding how the mind creates that all-too-elusive moment of inspiration that has been imbued with metaphor, myth, and mystery for far too long, when she gets to the meat of her neurological research. Andreasen tells us that

“most of the time we speak, we are producing a sequence of words that we have not produced before—in fact, that no one has produced before . . . we are producing language that is novel.  We make up coherent sentences “on the fly,” listening to ourselves speak while we are speaking, and planning what the next words will be as the words and sentences are produced” (Creative Brain 63-64, emphasis mine).

This one fact alone has profound consequences for writers. If we took our speech acts more seriously, we’d naturally do what I’ve suggested to writers for many years, which is read each other’s writing aloud, so that we could consciously hear what we’ve written, and respond verbally, all the while taking notes. We’d also take collaboration more seriously, since speaking our thoughts aloud is part of a series of necessary events in the writing process, but it is one that is not privileged by the old paradigm of the writer writing in isolation, speaking only to herself.  

Even though neuroscience is still unsure about the role each region of the brain controls, we all rely on various forms of memory-retrieval. The memory-retrieval skill of particular interest to writers is called “episodic memory,” which is used for free association, and it may be the source of

“information that is stored deeply and is therefore sometimes less consciously accessible. It draws on those freely wandering and undirected associative thoughts that constitute primary process thinking. It is a resource not only for the creative process but also for meditational states, religious experiences, and dreams” (Creative Brain 71-72).

The implications for writers in the above information has to do with understanding ourselves as creators. Instead of seeing the various acts of creation, especially the moment of inspiration we’ve imbued since the Ancient Greeks with the mystery of the Muse sitting on our shoulder, we can begin to free ourselves of our superstitions about writing, and replace our doubts with wisdom. No longer is the ‘wandering mind’ a negative state; it is, instead, crucial for creativity.

No longer will we think that information we’d otherwise wait to passively receive exists outside of ourselves; instead, now we can take responsibility for the fact that although we don’t know precisely where the thought came from, it is, nonetheless, stored in a part of our mind. Inspiration no longer resides in the ‘divine moment,’ it doesn’t belong to some long-dead lyrical Ancient Greek ‘Muse’—it is ours, it was always ours. This knowledge gives us ‘agency,’ which, not coincidentally, means we have power to act, speak, write, and best of all, to be free from limiting myths about creativity.

Woven together by an internal, seamless socially-inscribed ‘logic’, the myths that control how we think about writing are nonetheless not transparent, not natural, not fact. They are cultural artifacts, tattered remnants of a tapestry woven long ago by people who attempted to explain a phenomenon that seems mystical because it is so poorly understood: how a human being learns language and then uses that language to reflect emotion, impart wisdom and acquired knowledge, entertain with humor, incite a populace to war or to tears. And the myths exist in your unconscious memory; they influence your beliefs even now, unless you consciously choose to erase them and reframe them.

Grid structure of the major pathways of the brain, created by using a scanner that's part of the Human Connectome Project. Click on image for more information.

Grid structure of the major pathways of the brain, created by using a scanner that’s part of the Human Connectome Project. Click on image for more information.

When Albert Einstein’s brain was autopsied, it was found he had more neural connections between both hemispheres than the average person. It is important to recognize that he wasn’t born with those neural connections—they developed over time, and with effort on his part to constantly learn new things. The reason his brain could develop in this way has to do with the innate plasticity of our brains, and in this plasticity lies hope for anyone who wants to unlearn what you were told when young.

For example, recent discoveries have demonstrated that “cortical maps are subject to constant modification based on the use of sensory pathways” (Kandel & Hawkins 86).

This means that learning how to do something new literally changes the architecture of the brain.

We not only grow more neurons in response to learning (and the creation of a memory); we create an entire neural network that facilitates future learning, changing the brain’s cortical ‘map,’ or network of neurons. This has ramifications for those who believe our neural paths are fixed or predetermined, for it indicates that the act of learning itself changes the brain’s functioning.

Once the brain has learned and has formed new neural networks, the possibility for interaction between spheres increases, adding to the potential for increased intelligence. Increased neural networks allow for increased categorization and subcategorization of conceptual linguistic material such as metaphor and abstraction. 

What makes this learning possible in adolescents and adults is the brain’s neuroplasticity:

“[c]ontrary to the notion that the brain has fully matured by the age of eight or twelve . . . it turns out that the brain is an ongoing construction site . . . [m]aturation does not stop” (Schwartz and Begley, 128).

The tripartite interconnection between areas of the brain is facilitated, not by mystical intervention, but by learning, memorization, and experience, which creates “abilities that stick around if they’re used but wither if they’re not” (128).

Please contact me for details about the above references; since I have been researching this subject for more than 20 years, there’s a lot of data I can share with you, from the writer’s perspective.

Writing as a way of healing

Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives opens with these lines:

“Writing has helped me heal. Writing has changed my life. Writing has saved my life.”

She says that writing has helped her friends, students, and other writers heal from loss, grief, or personal tragedy. Writers who have endured personal trauma turn to their diaries, or write memoirs, fiction, poetry, and biographical essays as a means of making sense of what happened to them.

In fact, I have found that these are some of the life events that too often prevent writers from writing in the first place; we don’t feel strong enough in the face of life trauma to be able to get past the depths of our pain. The interesting thing is, if you think about it, most writing is about something truly awful that happened to someone; or it refers to an emotionally turbulent time in someone’s life, or it deals with an otherwise difficult subject, hard to understand, even harder to talk about.

Writers who find a way to broach their pain enter into terrain that often threatens to pull them under if they don’t express the emotions in some way.

You don’t have to rely solely on writing, though; painting, music, dance, or theatre, are all effective ways to crack open your creativity. No matter how you express yourself, the goal is to allow yourself to have these feelings, to get them out: “If we begin to value our creative urges, we begin to value ourselves. If we deny our creative urges, we deny that our lives have meaning and significance.” 

Yet we stop ourselves from expressing these truths, often for very good reasons. They are too painful, or too near, or too personal. Often, we can barely think about these things, let alone write about them, or tell anyone else what happened. For this reason, DeSalvo suggests having professional guidance to help you cope with your memories.

You can’t run the risk of re-traumatizing yourself without a professional there to guide you through whatever comes up. DeSalvo says “letting ourselves have our emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them as we work is an important (and all-too-often ignored) skill for us to develop,” but having our emotions is risky without someone who has traversed the terrain available during this process.

Because the piece of writing is “complete” when you read it (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Fitzgerald’s memoir of his nervous breakdown at thirty-nine, The Crack-Up),it isn’t immediately obvious that these famous writers were once in pain, struggling with life experiences, using writing as their “sturdy ladder out of the pit.”

DeSalvo, quoting Fitzgerald, says during the process of writing The Crack-Up, this multiply published author, already famous in his own time, learned “he’d led an inauthentic life, a non-reflective, reactive life.” He had done “very little thinking”… rather than knowing himself, he had allowed others to tell him who he was. He admitted to always feeling confused, which lead to his desire “to go out and get drunk.”

If the writing is to be a healing experience, though, we must rely on “nonjudgemental, self-reflective witnessing of ourselves as writers” which helps us “not ruminate about our feelings (a destructive practice) or to engage in accusation or self-blame.” Instead, as I will discuss in another entry, DeSalvo suggests keeping a process journal which “invites us to focus upon defining ourselves as active and engaged, not as passive, helpless and hopeless.”