Your Brain on Writing & Why it Matters

brain on writingIt’s ten o’clock, dark, I’d rather have a blanket, and a good book but the urge to write reminds me of my goals. I have a novel to finish.

It’s easy to push the idea of writing aside. After all, it’s been a long day full of work, dinner, carpools, and chaos. I deserve to veg out. But a few minutes or a handful of words will get me closer to my goal.

An hour later, I have no intention of going to bed, watching TV, or doing anything else. I’m full into writing and wide awake. What happened to change my focus and energy level?

Writing – it changes how our brains work, and science is proving it’s good for us.

Why is writing important?

The act of writing creates a series of complex actions in our brains. We visualize our story and then translate it to words describing what the senses feel and let it flow from our hands to the page. Our imagination taps into all areas of our brain. Writing is not a right brain exercise. It’s a full brain, full body experience.

The neural reaction to writing is enough that researchers can measure it with fMRI,  functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

What’s even more interesting is that the imaging for a novice writer is very different from that of a more experienced writer.

What science reveals.

Researchers asked volunteers to brainstorm writing ideas. The effort lit up the vision-processing portion of their brain, suggesting they were “seeing” the scenes as they planned their story. The hippocampus, the region that can hold and examine several pieces of information at one time, activated as they started writing, suggesting they were accessing memory along with their brainstorming ideas to place them into their story.

Experienced writers skipped this type of neural activity and went directly to the language centers of their brain.

Have you ever struggled to find a word during a conversation, but when writing, you were able to find what you wanted to say as well as several ways to say it? The more often you access a portion of your brain, whether it’s to perform a task or write, you deepen the pathways that grant more connections to the information and your ability to use it. Experienced writers show more efficient contact to the areas of their brain that lets them write.

typewriter and pagefMRI can show what is happening in the brain during writing, but it does not measure creativity, writing talent, or publishing success. What it does show is the profound effect of consistent, repetitive tasks and activities have on our brain.

Are you thinking about your writing habits differently now? Once you establish a practice, your brain is conditioned to continue the pattern.

Jonathan Gottschall, the author of The Storytelling Animal, examined storytelling through its evolution over thousands of years, the psychological effects, and science-based research.

“Writing requires a marvelous integration of multiple cognitive functions simultaneously: hand-eye coordination, language, memory, creativity, insight, logic, spatial intelligence, and abstract thought. And it is something you can only learn through consistent practice.“
Another study suggested writing by hand is more immersive in the creative experience than using a computer, making it a good remedy for writer’s block.
Reading fiction impacts our mental processing when compared to non-fiction, due in part to how fiction engages emotions and sensory perception.
“When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.”

The Benefits of Writing

  • Experts suggest writing, allows our mind to explore itself and examine our beliefs.
  • It’s linked to longer lifespans with better memory.
  • Children who spend more time writing by hand than by computer developed better retention and literacy skills.
  • Writing, and the practice of accessing and organizing information reinforces neural paths that help develop other skills.

How do I know writing is a workout? It’s energizing and exhausting at the same time. If a character runs a marathon, I’ve sweated every mile with them. Emotion, sensory perception, and empathy have allowed me to experience this virtual world, and if nothing else, that’s enough – to live inside these stories for a while.

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Categories: Writing

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