Finding the Narrative Thread: Your Brain on Writing

The MRI technician clicks through glowing, intricate sculptures of skin and muscle. “Here is my favorite, the heart. It looks like a tree — look how delicate the branches are.” Her fingers trace the screen, “I love fall. I say to my husband to look at the trees. They look like the heart.” Her metaphor is beautiful because by seeing life in the death and decay around her, she is telling the story of our bodies — that everything can be renewed, until it can’t, and that every tributary of life feeds into our brains, which interpret and reimagine, restore, and invent.

In writing this, I was inspired by the technician as she eased me into the MRI for my fractured wrist, an injury no writer can afford. A claustrophobe, I endured the MRI only by closing my eyes for the full 30 minutes, imagining the MRI sounds as music; a little John Cage here, a guitar riff there, the Sex Pistols still banging on through an MRI’s shallow cage.

Psychologists have always understood the link between the brain and writing. Sigmund Freud was a prolific writer and believed that writing had the capacity to heal: “The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of fantasy, which he takes very seriously — that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion — while separating it sharply from reality. Past, present, and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them.” Oliver Sacks, who could not distinguish faces but was brilliant at analyzing emotion, said narrative was essential to humanity. It is through storytelling that we make sense of our worlds, and if we are honest, come to fresh understandings.

As a writing teacher, I have Harvard physicians and MIT neuroscientists among my students. There is an astrophysicist, a book editor, romance-language professors, biologists, and accountants, yet in a writing class, there is no hierarchy. No one is more important than the other; the only value is in how well you can tell your story. Someone whose initial efforts are clumsy and who struggles today — or for a year or more — to express themselves on paper, may suddenly find the creative block melts and words dance out. With the words comes a new range of emotions, confidence, understanding, and self-esteem. It is not through free-flow writing or journaling that this happens, but through obeying the techniques and discipline of the narrative arc. Show don’t tell. Kill adverbs and abolish cliches. Wrestle with grammar and obey punctuation. The biggest emotional breakthroughs occur for these writers. Research has shown that in a well-run writing class, the amygdala glows happily and dopamine issues rewards.

Why? Dr. Renate Nummela Caine — a professor emeritus of education at California State University, who lectures across the world on the brain and education — says that textbook learning allows for minimal education, but rich experiential learning creates memory. “The brain takes the reality of the past and weaves a tapestry that joins feelings, information, and later adult experiences to create a memory that combines facts with what one might wish to be true.”

Writers, contrary to popular belief, do not sit in closed cabins in gardens extracting wisdoms pulled from the bubble-gum magic of their brains. The best writers research, enquire, go to libraries, watch people, engage with them, and interrogate. Writing a good book or article is an investigative process. We are the detectives of life. One word or phrase sees us cock our head and frown — a new mystery has appeared. It has to be pursued. The writer sets off neural networks ablaze. Writing is not sedentary. It is experiential.

Researchers led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany — monitoring writers within MRIs (clearly not claustrophobes) — observed that the subjects’ brains displayed the same complex activity as a top-level athlete or a brilliant musician. In a study in the journal NeuroImage, Lotze wrote that novice writers watch stories like a film inside their heads, while experienced writers appear to draw from an inner “voice” — or an active caudate nucleus which remains asleep in novice scribblers. What does this mean?

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development — which has been studying the brain and learning for two decades — notes in a recent report that intelligence is a product of skills attainment, something that may be acquired with a combination of motivation and self-esteem. Nothing is better than effective writing, or expression, to achieve this.

Oral language is acquired naturally during childhood by simple exposure to spoken language. Written language, on the other hand, requires intentional instruction. Language was one of the first functions known to have a cerebral basis. In the 19th century, studies of aphasia by scientists Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke revealed that certain areas of the brain are activated during language processing. Since then, studies have confirmed that these areas belong to the cerebral circuits involved in language. The combination of electrical and chemical activity of the neurons transmits and regulates information within the networks formed by neurons to create learning.

But while textbook learning or memorization dampens skills, experiential learning and writing activate memory, deepen the experience, and make it less likely that it will be lost. Effective speaking — much as we admire skilled orators — is worth less in the intelligence stakes than good writing.

Johns Hopkins University cognitive scientist Brenda Rapp discovered that it’s possible to damage the speaking part of the brain while leaving the writing part unaffected, even when it comes to dealing with morphemes — the tiniest meaningful components of the language system, including suffixes like “-er,” “-ing,” and “-ed.” It is as though there were two quasi-independent language systems in the brain. Her team studied five stroke victims with aphasia, a disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate. When shown pictures, the patients could accurately say what they were seeing, but their writing would be confused. For example, a person might say, “Dave is eating an apple,” and then write, “Dave is eats an apple.”

The findings reveal that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, and not just in terms of motor control, but in the high-level aspects of word construction. “We found that the brain knows about word parts and how they fit together,” Rapp said. “When you damage the brain, you might damage certain morphemes but not others in writing, or vice versa.”

What this means for those who teach writing is that endless peer review is a journey to nowhere, but in classes where writing technique is taught, the brain is educated, and in that process writing improves among participants, along with their desire to use language appropriately. As they dig deeper into the subconscious, old memories and new truths, perhaps honed by experience, emerge.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2016 issue.

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1 Comment

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