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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Ellen Hendriksen is the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast, and she recently sent me an article about researchers in Germany who studied people’s brains while they were actively writing. They looked at both professional writers and novices, and they found differences. The professional writers showed brain activity similar to what researchers see in people who are good at music and sports.
Mignon: Before we get into the findings, they used something called an fMRI scanner. What does that actually measure?
Ellen: This is a great question—there are so many fMRI studies in the news these days, but much like “gluten” or “Obamacare,” most of us don’t know what fMRI really is, even though the term gets thrown around a lot. So this is a perfect opportunity for a quick primer!
fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging. When an area of the brain is used to think thoughts or perform a task, it requires more oxygen, so blood flow to that area increases to meet the demand.
The fMRI scanner uses a strong magnetic field combined with radio waves to create images of this contrast in blood flow—the oxygen-enhanced blood in the active part of the brain reacts differently to the magnetic field and therefore stands out against the less oxygenated blood in the quieter parts of the brain.
The images allow neuroscientists to pinpoint what parts of the brain are in use during a given task, plus there’s no exposure to radiation like in an X-ray or CT scan.
Mignon: What did you think was most interesting about this study? Is it ground-breaking or does it build on things researchers already knew?
Ellen: I’d say both. It is groundbreaking because this is the first time neuroscientists have looked at the brains of experienced writers writing fiction in real time. Two previous studies have had participants make up stories in their heads while in the scanner, but this is the first time we’ve been able to catch the brain in the act of writing.
What's the useful takeaway message for writers? Practice.
Logistically, this was hard to pull off. You can’t have a computer in the same room as the scanner because of the magnetic field, so the researchers asked writers to write longhand. But, you have to lie down in the scanner, so they couldn’t have the writers sit normally to write. Finally, you have to be absolutely still in the scanner—just like with a regular camera. If your subject moves, you end up with a blurry picture. So the researchers had the triple whammy of figuring out how to get people to lie down with their heads perfectly still, but still write longhand. So through a set of double mirrors and a custom-built writing desk, they jury-rigged a system. You’ll find a picture on the QDT website.
This study was also important because the next frontier of creativity research is identifying neural mechanisms—in other words, this is the first study to nail down how the semi-mystical qualities of creativity and expertise in professional writers manifest as neurons and blood flow. It’s a little bit like pulling back the curtain on the wizard to reveal his gears and levers.
It’s also important to say that creativity and expertise are very difficult to study. There’s so much that goes into it: originality, intelligence, talent, practice effects, motivation, culture. So while this study is a nice shovelful towards the excavation of creativity, there’s a lot more to uncover before we can get a definite picture of what we’re even unearthing.