Neuroscience of creative writing

What is going on in that big old brain of ours as we are inspired to create? Do we have a muse locked up in a room up in there? A muse plucking at our neurons while we plunk the keys maybe.


Well neuroscientists took the time to check out the brains of some novice writers with a fMRI scanner. “The researchers, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, observed a broad network of regions in the brain working together as people produced their stories. But there were notable differences between the two groups of subjects. The inner workings of the professionally trained writers in the bunch, the scientists argue, showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, like music or sports.” NY Times

At first Dr. Lotze asked his 28 volunteers to copy some initial text, which would give him his baseline readings of their brain activity. Then he showed them a few lines of a short story and asked them to continue the story forward. They could brainstorm for a few minutes and then write for a few more minutes.

There are some parts of the brain that become active only during the creative process itself but not while strictly copying. During the brainstorming part of the exercise, some vision-processing regions of the brain became active suggesting it was possible they were, in fact, seeing the scenes they wanted to write. Other areas became active when they actually began to write their story and Dr. Lotze believes one of them, the hippocampus, could be retrieving factual information for them to use. One area of the brain at the front became active that is known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information at the same time. Holding different pieces of information, plots, characters and so forth may have been putting a use on that. One region near the front of the brain, known to be crucial for holding several pieces of information in mind at once, became active as well. Juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.

The limit to the study is that this was novice writers. Would it in fact change for professional writers? “To find out, he and his colleagues went to another German university, the University of Hildesheim, which runs a highly competitive creative writing program. The scientists recruited 20 writers there (their average age was 25). Dr Lotze and his colleagues had them take the same tests and then compared their performance with the novices’.” NY Times

During brainstorming the brains of the expert writer showed more activity in the regions of speech rather than visual areas. “‘I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It’s possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.” NY Times

Another difference deep within the brains of the expert writer lays in the area called the caudate nucleus; active with the expert writer and inactive with the novice. It has a role in skills that need practice and in expertise. “When we first start learning a skill — be it playing the piano or playing basketball — we use a lot of conscious effort. With practice, those actions become more automatic. The caudate nucleus and nearby regions start to coordinate the brain’s activity as this shift happens.” NY Times

However, there is a very good point to be made that this could be seen in any writing in general. I, for example, write a fine research paper having been writing essays all my life. Dr. Pinker “pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information. NY Times

Another problem is that it is difficult to find a commonality in creativity. This was after all a small study. I can see how many of us may have speech centers activated while writing… but Also visual centers as well. “

Even the best-designed scanning experiments might miss signs of creativity, Dr. Pinker warned. The very nature of creativity can make it different from one person to the next, and so it can be hard to see what different writers have in common. Dr. Pinker speculated that Marcel Proust might have activated the taste-perceiving regions of his brain when he recalled the flavor of a cookie. But another writer might rely more on sounds to evoke a time and place.“Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study,” he said.” NY Times


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