What New Research on the Brain Says Every Writer Should Do
German brain researchers studied the brain activity of people who were actively writing, and they discovered one thing that every person should do to become a better writer. Ellen Hendriksen, the Savvy Psychologist, explains how the study worked and reveals the secret.
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Mignon: I'd like to hear more about how the caudate nucleus is involved in "skills that come with practice."
Ellen: Yes, in the study, the caudate nucleus lit up when the experienced writers were writing, but not with the inexperienced writers.
The caudate nucleus is a midbrain structure, which means that it evolved way ahead of the cortex and plays a role in a mind-boggling array of functions, including some really fundamental things like sleep and movement.
Germane to this study, it also plays a role in learning. As you gain expertise, your brain economizes and automates. In other words, as you get good at something, you stop overthinking—the task becomes automatic, like riding a bike or using a fork. So it makes sense that this area lit up in the scans of expert writers.
But in addition, the caudate is also important in language production; in general, the bigger the caudate, the better one’s verbal fluency. Indeed, in a case study, a trilingual woman with an injured caudate could still understand all three of the languages she knew, but she couldn’t sort them out when she tried to speak—the production was disrupted. And what, of course, is writing but production of language? So it makes sense that this lit up with the expert writers as well.
By contrast, in inexperienced writers, the visual areas of the brain lit up as they wrote their fiction in the scanner, suggesting that inexperienced writers were, so to speak, taking notes on a movie they saw in their mind’s eye as they wrote.
To wrap up about the caudate, it also plays a role in some other really interesting things. For example, the caudate nucleus is associated with emotion, creativity, and entering a flow state; it lights up when viewing beautiful art, listening to beautiful music, and when looking at the face of your lover. If the caudate nucleus were a person, it would probably write really good love poems. We’ll never know, but I’m willing to bet Shakespeare had history’s biggest caudate nucleus.
But, as with all studies, there are some caveats here. Since researchers haven’t really pinned down how to study creativity with precision, it’s important not to be too specific in our conclusions from this study. I know it drives people crazy when scientists won’t definitively say yes or no as an answer, but at least this study points us in a direction, even if we haven’t arrived at the destination.
Mignon: What's the useful takeaway message for writers?
Ellen: Practice. To be a better writer, you have to write. Fingers on a keyboard or pen to paper—whether or not your head is in a scanner—is how to train your brain. The expert writers in the scanner reported spending, on average, 21 hours per week writing (as opposed to getting sucked into YouTube, not that I know anything about that).
Training by doing develops your cognitive skills so they become—to quote the study: “automatic, implicit, and efficient.” So rather than seeing your story as a movie in your head, it will feel more like jazz improvisation with your story as your music.
Finally, as writing becomes more automatic, you’ll be able to balance many tasks: keeping track of characters, constructing sentences, engaging readers’ interest. To quote the researchers again, with practice, your writing will happen in “an automatic, unconscious, and intuitive way.” And you won’t even have to do it lying down.
[If you’re following along with the audio podcast, open the “egregious” page in a new window.]
Erhard, K., Kessler, F., Neumann, N., Ortheil, H.-J., & Lotze, M. (2014). Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task. NeuroImage, 100, 15-23.
Photo used with permission from Martin Lotze.