Creative writing and the brain

Up until now theories about how writers write have been based largely on observation and guesswork. Mostly researchers have relied on asking writers to describe their process in creating, writing and editing their work.

But now neuroscientists are taking a look inside the creative writer’s brain. In one recent study, people were asked to write a story inside an MRI machine that scanned their brains while they wrote. Researchers were able to track which parts of the brain were most active during different stages of the writing and editing process.

Each person was asked to continue writing a story for which they’d been given a beginning. Lying in the scanner looked awkward (see the photo) but the subjects weren’t daunted. They used mirrors for reading, had cushions to support their writing arm and an assistant to provide fresh paper.

Researchers found that different parts of our brain are engaged during the planning and writing stages. In the brainstorming phase, when we are coming up with new ideas, the areas of the brain associated with verbal thinking are active. But in the creative writing phase, the busiest part of the brain is in the area associated with language processing and handwriting.

Our brains respond a bit like a pinball machine once an idea for a story bounces around, it triggers all sorts of activity.

Interestingly, the research reinforced the link between handwriting and creativity, suggesting that you’re better off writing by hand when you’re looking for inspiration and new ideas, and saving the keyboard for the linguistic heavy lifting involved in the editing and redrafting.


Photo credit: Thanks to Martin Lotze for permission to use the image.


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