An e-mail to a business lead. A love letter tucked inside a valentine. An opinionated post on an Internet forum. These days, most of us are fairly prolific writers, and we would feel quite disabled without this essential skill. It could be in the form of a handwritten note, a typed digital document or a thumb-typed text to a friend. For us, writing is both a form of artistic expression and a practical tool for daily life. Yet, this has not always been the case.
Verbal language of some sort has likely been part of the human experience since the dawn of Homo sapiens. Writing, on the other hand, is not innately part of the human brain’s repertoire of behaviors. All human cultures include speech, but not all have written language, and, even today, hundreds of thousands of people around the world never learn to write. Rather, writing is a complex linguistic technology that developed only in the last few thousand years.
Writing requires a marvelous integration of multiple cognitive functions simultaneously: hand-eye coordination, language, memory, creativity, insight, logic, spatial intelligence, and abstract thought. And it is something you can only learn through consistent practice. If you remember groaning in despair when your teacher assigned yet another essay or term paper, there is probably a good reason for that: Writing is hard and requires a lot of brain activity to accomplish. Nevertheless, your teacher was doing right by you, since writing is an effective calisthenic for developing the brain’s abilities. Brain scans show that many areas of the brain work in tandem during the act of writing, which creates strong neural connections for developing other skills.
Teachers no longer believe that writing is something that should only occur in the confines of a humanities classroom. Rather, it is now known that writing across the curriculum supports not only better writing but better learning in general. Studies have shown that students who do more writing also do better in science and math. Judy Willis, a neuroscientist who studies how the brain learns, writes in “The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning” at Edutopia, “The practice of writing can enhance the brain’s intake, processing, retaining, and retrieving of information. Through writing, students can increase their comfort with and success in understanding complex material, unfamiliar concepts and subject-specific vocabulary.” In other words, writing figuratively builds the brain’s muscles, which can then be used for all sorts of cognitive activity.
Over the past couple of decades, the rise of the personal computer and word-processing programs has led to more writing being composed directly on computer keyboards. As a result, some school districts have discontinued the teaching of cursive handwriting in favor of teaching keyboard skills. This trend may be a mistake, since handwritten sentences may be the best kind of writing for the brain. In an article called “Research: Handwriting Spurs Brain Activity, Typing Doesn’t” at Education News, Julia Lawrence cites recent studies indicating that preschool and elementary-age students who spend more time writing by hand rather than by computer have better retention and literacy skills.
The brain benefits of writing continue well beyond the school years and into adulthood. Writing is seen by many psychologists as a means for the brain to know itself. The brain is sometimes referred to as a meaning-making machine, and the process of writing allows us to examine the beliefs we have accumulated, to understand how we as individuals relate to the world, and to know our own minds better. In short, writing cultivates introspection that leads to better psychological health. A study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that journaling exercises helped people process emotions and stress related to traumatic events in their lives better than traditional therapies alone.
Writing may also serve as an indicator of brain longevity. One investigation, known as The Nun Study, conducted by the National Institute on Aging, showed a correlation between writing ability and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Reported in Neurobiology of Aging, the study looked at the lives of 678 nuns, all of whom had lived similar lifestyles, to determine what factor might account for brain health in later life. Detailed records existed for all of the nuns, all of whom had joined the order while still in young adulthood. Each of the subjects had written an autobiography when joining the order, and their average age at the time was 22. Researchers were able to look at the old biographical essays and assess them for linguistic fluency and complexity of content. Only 10 percent of nuns who were able to write well in their youth ended up with Alzheimer’s, while 80 percent of those with less proficient writing abilities suffered from the disease in old age.
But what about old-fashioned writer’s block? Does it mean something has gone terribly wrong with your brain? Not at all. Creative block is quite normal for all artistic pursuits, perhaps due to the complexity of the brain functions involved. The brain easily falls into habitual patterns, as neurons fuse into increasingly rigid pathways, which may be counterproductive to originality of thought. Theoretically, a creative mind must remain “plastic,” retaining the brain’s neuroplasticity as much as possible. This may be especially difficult for writers, who are confined by rigid rules of grammar and syntax in their efforts to achieve originality of expression and insight.
Harvard neurologist Alice Flattery, who studies the brain processes involved in creativity, believes writing requires “a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes.” Excessive activity in the frontal lobes can derail activity in the temporal lobes, resulting in a distracted mind and lack of inspiration. Mood and even seasonal change can affect the brain in this way, and Flattery has used lights to increase creativity and productivity in students with seasonal affective disorder.
If you feel like your writer’s brain is caught in a loop and you can’t get the words you really want to appear on the page, you might take some cues from the pros. Many well-known authors are famous for their quirky habits while writing, which may have helped them avoid writer’s block. For example, Maya Angelou always keeps a pack of cards nearby to play solitaire, and Ernest Hemingway was famous for the cats that crawled across his desk. It could be that these “distractions” help reset the brain to writer’s mode when the frontal lobes become too dominant. Writer’s block may result from the judgmental mind becoming too obsessed with the correctness of what is being written, thus blocking the elements of inspiration and experimentation. Science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler suggests, “Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong. So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and your imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use.”
However you find your ideas, take pride in your contribution. The writer’s brain is yet another tool of human exploration — a way to know ourselves, know each other, and to know the world. The contribution of writing to human cultural and technological development is immeasurable. Each generation writes down their discoveries, wisdom, and inspiration. The next generation reads and builds upon that, adding to the limitless canon of human thought and imagination.
Nicole Dean taught college-level writing for 11 years and now works as a writer, editor, book coach, and workshop coordinator (deanwritingandediting.weebly.com).