Paula looks at how writers use different parts of their brains
Recently, I read an article about how
writers use their brains, and here is my summary of the findings.
To begin with, the researcher and his
team asked 28 volunteers to simply copy some text, giving him a baseline
reading of their brain activity during writing.
Next, he showed the volunteers a few
lines from a short story and asked them to continue it in their own words. They
could brainstorm for a minute, and then write creatively for about two minutes.
The researchers found some regions of
the brain, inactive during the copying session, became active during the
creative process. During the brainstorming sessions, the vision-processing brain
areas of the volunteers became active. It seemed they were visualising the
scenes they wanted to write.
Other regions became active when the
volunteers started jotting down their stories. It was possible that one region,
the hippocampus, was retrieving factual information that the volunteers could
Another region near the front of the
brain, known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information in mind at
once, also became active as well. Juggling several characters and plot lines
may put special demands on it.
However, this study was limited. The
volunteers had no previous experience in creative writing.
The researcher decided to repeat the
tests with full-time writers to see if their brains responded differently. He
recruited 20 writers who were taking a creative writing programme at a
University. They took the same tests and the researchers compared their
performance with the novices.
What’s interesting is that the brains
of experienced writers appeared to work
differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the
novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of
expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.
The researcher concluded that the two
groups were using different strategies. The novices were watching their stories
like a film inside their heads, while the writers were narrating it with an
Once the two groups started to write,
another set of differences emerged. Deep inside the brains of experienced writers,
a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate
nucleus was quiet.
Evidently the caudate nucleus plays an
essential role in the skill that comes with practice, including activities like
board games. When we first start learning a skill, we use a lot of conscious
effort. With practice, those actions become more automatic. The caudate nucleus
and nearby regions start to coordinate the brain’s activity as this shift
happens which suggests the experienced writers were using skills they had
This article intrigued me. I’ve heard
other writers talking about how they see their stories being ‘acted out’ in
their mind’s eye, rather like a movie, but I’ve never been able to do that.
Yes, I can see my characters, but when I write, I’m not watching the movie.
Instead, I’m playing a part in the movie, and seeing it through the eyes (and
other senses) of whoever’s POV I happen to be in at the time. Maybe that’s what
the researcher mean by ‘narrating it with an inner voice’.
I can relate to the hippocampus retrieving
information, and also to the area of the brain that juggles the plot! The
caudate nucleus is interesting too, as it presumably includes basic skills such
as grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as the other skills we use when
we write, including our vocabulary, and the various others things we’ve learned
about what to do and what not to do!
Has this made you analyse how your
brain works when you’re writing?