Write-Brained: Part 1 – The Creative Space in the Human Mind

Part 1: Finding the Creative Space in the Human Mind

Today’s task is an easy one: I’m going to take you on a quick tour of your brain so we can locate your “creative brain,” and through that discovery examine the neuroscience and psychology involved in writing and writer’s block. Shouldn’t take but a moment, right?

Write Brained: The Neuroscience of Writing

The main purpose of this brain tour is to identify the creative brain so we can examine creative processes and what gets in the way of those processes.

The Brain in Six Parts

The brain just a little bit complex, so when we talk about its territories we can easily divide it in numerous ways. For the sake of this tour, I’m going to divide the brain into six parts, or specifically: three sections, one gatekeeper, and two hemispheres.

As with any explanation I could give in a reasonably brief time-frame, this will be a gross oversimplification. The biggest qualification I’ll make before jumping in is that, while I will be treating these as separate parts of the brain, they are deeply integrated and interactive with one another. It’s useful to think of them as independent entities, but no part of the brain works entirely on its own. (And just so we’re clear: We use the entire brain. Those who say that humans only use 10% of their brain may be speaking accurately about themselves, but most humans take advantage of the whole mass of grey matter.)


The Three Sections

Human Brain in Parts (Reptilian, Limbic, Neocortex)

Reptilian Brain: Made up of your innermost brain and brain stem, the reptilian brain does not think or feel: It intuits. The process happens so fast that the reptilian reaction occurs before we’ve cognitively processed—or even fully seen—the source of our intuitive emotion or behavior. These are our “knee-jerk responses.” These intuitive responses include sexual attraction, hunger, and the fight-or-flight response.

Mammalian Brain: The mammalian brain is a term used to describe the limbic system. While this is a richly complex system, the primary item to note for this discussion is that this brain is an emotional brain. These are not simple emotions like the intuitive responses of the reptilian brain. These can be layered, complex, or even contradictory emotions, all wrapped up in memory and environmental factors.

We have many evolutionary relatives on the planet who walk around with a reptilian and mammalian brain but no neo-mammalian brain. They seem to do quite well for themselves. You may have taken classes from some of them.

Neo-Mammalian Brain: This term refers to the most recent addition to the human brain and the part that makes us (theoretically) unique: The neocortex (itself an extension of the cerebral cortex). While some mammals have a limited neocortex, the human version is larger and more capable. This is the part of the human brain that we use when engaging in complex thought, imagining the future, and using language.

Without this part of the brain, you can’t use language any more than a typical baboon can. While the precursors of language are present in all parts of the brain, the ability to use language as we think of it comes specifically from the neocortex.

The Gatekeeper

Amygdala - The Gatekeeper

The amygdala: Between the reptilian and mammalian brain is the amygdala, a sort of gatekeeper that works with external stimuli, memory, and emotion, and can also trigger a variety of emotional (limbic) or reflexive (reptilian) responses. The latest concepts of how the amygdala work reject the idea that it’s a simple stimulus filter. Rather, it’s a judge that determines what stimuli are important, what can be disregarded, and what might be dangerous or beneficial.

This will be discussed in greater detail in part two as we get into the chemical processes of focus, anxiety, and paralysis.

The Two Hemispheres

Left and Right Brain

Image courtesy of Mercedes Benz

You’re probably already familiar with the idea of the left brain as being organized and the right brain as being creative. This is (broadly speaking) correct, if incomplete.

The left brain: The left brain is our problem-solving, synthesizing brain. To solve problems effectively, we must take the idea, process, or system and boil it down to its simplest parts, at which point the idea can be integrated with other ideas (synthesized). This allows us to work with complex notions as if they were linear, making up a strict line of A leads to B leads to C. To do so, the left brain works in dichotomies and concretes (things are or aren’t a specific way; life becomes a series of true-false questions).

This is flattening reality, but not in a negative way. It’s this sort of thinking that lets us communicate, educate, and understand in the way we do. It’s an internal map of the external world, and in much the same way that a map is not the complex reality outside, our left-brained linear thinking doesn’t reflect the actual world outside. However, it lets us navigate it far better than if we tried to use a three-dimensional, full-sized map of the world.

The right brain: The right brain is our explorative, creating brain. Rather than being concerned with flattening the world, it’s concerned with expanding it. Notions that appear simple are made complex and three-dimensional. The world is seen as a holistic unit, not divided into parts, and life is—if any kind of test at all—an open-ended essay question. This sort of thinking tends to avoid absolutes, appreciate gradients, and celebrate paradox.

The thinking is relational as opposed to linear, and it’s the reason you can see an elephant and naturally think of your Aunt Mary, then crave saltwater taffy. The connections are only in your own mental landscape, and our associations often lead to wild jumps in thinking—but that, in short, is what we call creativity.This is where creativity comes from.

Where Creative Writing Happens

With language as part of the neocortex and the creative process taking place in the right hemisphere, we’ve narrowed the landscape of writing’s creative element to this limited portion of the brain.

I want to be clear, however, that the writing process involves substantially more than just this part of the process. We may use our neocortex to generate ideas, but recognizing the emotional weight of a thing and what’s worth saying happens largely in the limbic system; we may use our right brain to make creative associations, but our left brain allows us to discard irrelevant pieces and put together an idea in a way that makes sense for readers. Writing as a craft is often the use of left-brained linear thinking to translate complex and evocative write-brained imaginings.

One of the things I love about writing is that it’s such a holistic task. In many regards, writing a deeply human enterprise that calls upon all of our evolutionary history to complete a process that no other creature on earth can complete.

While recognizing the importance of the entire brain, we can nevertheless state that there is a a space in the right-side neocortex that could accurately be held accountable for the creative parts of the writing process. For the remainder of this series, I’m going to call this the “creative brain.” By examining the way the creative brain lights up or shuts down, we can get a better understanding of how creative flow and writer’s block happen—and, to some degree, can be controlled.

We’ve completed our first task: We know where functional creativity happens, and so can hone in on the problems and solutions to creative challenges. The next part of this series will look at the psychology of focus, anxiety, and paralysis—as well as states of being and thinking that impact our creativity in a positive way. But first, there are questions we need to answer about the origin of language and the purpose of storytelling.