Write-Brained: The Neuroscience of Writing and Writer’s Block
The Write-Brained Series Hub Page
This page provides an outline of what each part of the Write-Brained series will contain. You can bookmark and revisit this page for up-to-date links to each part.
When I transitioned to full-time freelance work, my inability to complete work until the last minute before deadline was no longer just an inconvenience: It was the source of significant emotional and economic distress. After using traditional deadline coping mechanisms (binge eating, absurd amounts of caffeine, cigarettes), I changed tactics.
I studied productivity and, eventually, the human mind. What I learned was fascinating and deeply useful. While I’m not a neurologist or a psychologist, I am a writer—and in that regard hope to transmit specific information and give some advice that I’ve found to be extraordinarily helpful.
To understand what happens neurologically when we write (or when we can’t write), we have to understand some brain basics. This entry discusses the general structure of the brain and locates the specific part of the brain that allows us to write creatively.
The human brain is composed of three major parts: The “reptilian brain,” the “mammalian brain,” and the “neo-mammalian brain.” The reptilian is the oldest and most basic while the neo-mammalian brain is a “human only” addition. It’s the neo-mammalian brain that gives us the ability to use language.
While both hemisphere are important in communication when using the neo-mammalian brain, it’s the right hemisphere that allows us to think in the ways we most commonly associate with creative writing.
Human language didn’t develop so we could think in more complex ways but so we could think in more simple ways. Linguistic expression is a process of simplification, while creativity is a process of expansion. When we are creative, we are thinking three-dimensionally, associating concepts in a non-linear fashion and reaching out for complex, rich, and deeply human topics to discuss.
But the actual reasons why we developed language are largely social. As human brains expanded, our skulls did too. To allow for safe birth, human children were born half developed—and were reliant on their parents as protectors for many years of cognitive development outside of the womb. This led proto-humans to form the first “societies” and adopt social roles.
Social roles led to the idea of “self,” and that “self” needed to find meaning within the world. To find its meaning, it needed stories. Our drive for storytelling is as old as our self-awareness, and is thus one of the most crucial and most deeply human tasks.
This page contains additional information cut from the published version of Part 2. If you’re interested in deeper discussion of the relational nature of language, the history of our terminology regarding color, and a few extra buckets of information about Homo neanderthalis, check out this entry.
The most interesting piece of information? We still have some neanderthal DNA flowing through us, and many writers exhibit strengths and weaknesses that might be part of that genetic heritage.
Part 3: “Right” Writing and Modern Misfirings
When we shift into linear thinking, we prevent the creative process from working properly. We are also blocked when restricted to out non-mammalian brain. The most primitive and simplistic parts of the brain are also the most vital to basic survival. It’s useful to think of mental resources as operating on a floodgate mechanism with the amygdala as the gatekeeper.
The amygdala’s primary role is assessing risk and distributing resources appropriately. Historically, it has been one of the most important brain components for the survival of our species. However, the modern era has complicated the issue and made the amygdalan response surprisingly destructive. The stress response locks off the parts of our brain we need if we want to write. As we enter a fight, flight, or freeze response, we become unable to move forward with complex intellectual tasks such as writing.
Two-dimensional thinking is often triggered by the looming presence of arbitrary judgment. Ultimately, the “on/off” switch of writing is “they like it” or “they don’t.” This, in combination with ways we teach composition, often instills a sense of there being a “right answer,” which immediately creates a linear thought-process.
Another misconception we have in modern society is that more rewards or punishments will mean better performance. Studies indicate that while the “carrot and the stick” approach works wonderfully with purely mechanical tasks (you get a bigger rush in your fight/flight departments), it works terribly in mental tasks.
We also face guilt spirals that can trigger increased anxiety in response to our mental limitations.
Deadlines are simultaneously the best and worst things for writers: Most writers get through the anxiety once they’re right up against the due date. The reason for that last-minute success is largely chemical: We get a boost of dopamine and adrenaline as we approach that final deadline. This allows our minds to focus and lets us push through the anxiety barrier.
Part 4: Chemical Cravings of the Creative Mind
We can get addicted to dopamine and adrenaline. Many procrastinators are actually soft-core adrenaline junkies.
The reason is “down-regulation” of dopamine over time. This “addiction” manifests in many habits commonly seen in writers: smoking, caffeine, and even the more “intellectual” drugs stimulate dopamine. (Alcohol and marijuana may be an attempts to cope with the anxieties already discussed.) The use of persistent dopamine stimulation can lead to further down-regulation and dependency, though ultimately the problem isn’t halting dopamine stimulation but finding healthy ways to do so.
Within this trend of dopamine deficiency, we can also see the connecting line between attention deficit disorder, depression, and creativity.
Part 5: Willpower, Happiness, and Other Misconceptions
There are specific misconceptions when it comes to how we can optimize our behaviors. One of the most destructive misconceptions is that, when faced with anxiety or difficulty, we can simply “will through it.” While science has shown us that willpower is real, it has also shown that it is finite. When our finite willpower is used up, our brains require time to recharge—which becomes the start of procrastination cycles for many writers.
Happiness is the center of another misconception. We believe that we should sacrifice our happiness so we can have more time and energy available for the things that will make us successful. However, studies over the last few decades in the field of positive psychology have shown us that a happy brain is faster, more efficiently, and more creatively.
Exercise is another area where many writers often make sacrifices. While exercise may be time-consuming, it’s also wonderfully helpful in balancing brain chemicals, reducing stress, and bolstering happiness—all of which happen to improve one’s ability to write.
Part 6: Optimizing the Creative Mind
With an understanding of what fuels the brain and what holds it back, we can now talk about Starcraft. Seriously. My approach to productivity is based, in part, on a model I developed when thinking about Starcraft “build orders.”
By investing resources in the actions that will give you more resources, reduce stress, and bring increased chemical balance (exercise, meditation, preparing healthy meals), you can increase your total writing output.
There are several writing techniques you can use to delve into the writing itself, including the items I outlined in my article 7 Strategies to Outsmart Writer’s Block. I’ll go deeper in this article, outlining ways I’ve developed to compartmentalize projects to avoid anxiety; ways I “trick myself” into thinking creatively; how I navigate back to neo-mammalian thinking when I’m having a panic response; and other patterns and strategies that have helped make me a more productive writer.
In the last week, I’ve written roughly 12,500 words—or about 50 pages. I’m by no means “perfect” as a writer, but I’ve come a long way. I’m hopeful that by teaching you the things that really helped me along, and by passing some of my favorite techniques on to you, I can help you move forward in your own projects.
As always, these summaries are subject to change as I actually delve into writing each segment. What I can basically guarantee is that at least a rough draft of every article will be up by February 14th. (Yes, that soon.) I’ve arranged to use this series as a creative nonfiction research project for my coursework, so a deadline has appeared! It’s win-win-win. I promise.