German researcher Martin Lotze, curious as to what happens in a writer’s brain during the creative writing process, wired up a few authors to a Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) machine and took a look inside their heads. He discovered different parts of the brain were engaged during the writing process depending on whether you were a novice or an expert writer and if you were merely brainstorming or actually writing content.
The brain regions that activated in the writers’ craniums were similar to those activated in the brains of musicians and even sports professionals. For writers, Lotze observed a surprising difference, however, between the brain activities of novice and expert writers. In the novice writers’ brains, displayed increased activity in the regions associated with speech.
When the participants shifted from brainstorming to writing, other distinctions were observed. A region called the caudate nucleus became active in the expert writers but remained quiet in the novices’ brains. The region is associated with learning a skill that improves with practice. It’s more active during the learning process then settles down once a skill is acquired and perfected.
New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer, who wrote the article, entitled “This Is Your Brain on Writing,” in a recent edition, observed: “When we first start learning a skill—be it playing a 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.” The region lights up as the experienced writer starts pulling together the efforts of various parts of the brain. Logically, the younger writer has less experience to call upon and thus the less activity in that region of the brain.
Lotze’s research has received some criticism. One critic conjectured that it would have been helpful to compare what is going on in the brains of a fiction writer versus a non-fiction writer. I agree, but I suspect that regardless of the form, writing of any kind relies substantially on the brain’s creative ability to tell story, whether it’s creating a fictional one, or organizing a factual one. I also wonder what impact the Rube Goldberg device Lotze rigged up to permit someone to write while immobilized in an MRI machine might impact the experiment. It would be interesting to determine what if any distinctions in brain activity existed between a writer using a keyboard and one employing pen and paper. As a journalist, I learned to compose at the keyboard, but still frequently take notes and brainstorm with pen and paper. Forced to write longhand might well require my brain to work differently. It would be fun to know how differently.
Lotze’s findings give rise to valuable insights that become the tools of creative people. Knowing how the brain functions in a given activity helps the person who engages in that activity to enhance the outcome by trying alternative approaches. Years ago, neural linguists associated eye movement with brain processes and discovered that when a person’s brain was in retrieval (recollection) mode, they looked up, but when in the creating (fabricating, i.e., lying) mode they looked down. Of special interest was the discovery that after the liar looked down to fabricate, he looked up as he filed the fabrication into his factual library before presenting it as the truth. The findings proved a useful tool when interviewing or cross-examining witnesses during trial. Once a liar was detected, his or her story could frequently be unraveled through additional and careful questioning. Truth has a natural adhesion between and among the underlying fibers of facts. The fabricated story starts to unravel as you pull on and follow a loose strand. The liar can’t weave and remember their pattern fast enough and their story soon starts to fray.
As for Lotze’s findings, any little bit of information about the operations of the creative brain is assistive to a writer, especially if it helps her to more easily transition from novice to expert. (I contend a novice writer might be of any age.) Also, teachers might be better able to help them achieve the transition. In my middle school composition classes, students approached a writing assignment visually at first then translated “the movie in their minds” into words on paper. The idea was to tap into and effectively use their already well-developed visual skills as the foundation for their verbal and written ones. The technique also enabled less experienced writers over the hump of staring at a blank page, pen poised but inactive, and frequently snagged by some arcane rule of writing or grammar.
Visualization helped students convert the germ of an idea or concept into words by more closely aligning the writing process with their creative, imaginative play with which they were already competent. Writing, rather than being something new, became an extension of their other existent talents and capabilities. Lotze’s findings that expert writers’ brains functioned less visually would seem to support the idea that as one matures one becomes more adept in verbal skills.
Young writers also tend to develop an emotional attachment to their ideas, which can be a source of resistance when they need to abandon something in favor of a more effective alternative. Visualization allowed them to more readily not just to accept but look for ways to improve their efforts as they learned the “then, what” stages of the writing process. They learned to plan and thus to progressively fill in more and more details as the progressed through their own story. They created a supply of facts they could mine as they transitioned their story onto paper.
When you visualize a story you also discover the details you lack and require outside help—research. Students were compelled to learn where and how to find (i.e., create) the additional details necessary to convert a feel-good idea and into a feel-good written product. Telling rather than showing is a red flag for a lack of research to incorporate into a story’s scenes. Showing is a sign of a maturing writing process.
Visualization helped students to cross the chasm from an emotional idea to a factual product—to go from the subjective to the objective. At the subjective level, young writers tend to tell. At the objective level, they learn to show and write effective narrative details and dialogue between and among characters. Cardboard characters come to life through narrative description and interactive dialogue.
Visualization allows students to construct in their creative brain the visual scenes of their story, which is foundational to transform them into verbalized scenes. If they could see their characters and their story, they could learn to translate their “observations” into words. Rather than create a story on paper, they transferred their visual story into readable content. As they become more facile with the process, the process compacts and soon they have learned the skill of writing story.
I supposed you could say that with experience and practice, writers learn to hear their stories rather than see them, or at least relegate the characters on their mental stage into actors speaking great lines effectively. The focus on words assumes a more important position in the writing process. The writer, rather than seeing her story, starts to think of ways to tell (show) it verbally.
In summary, story ideas of young writers tend to be steeped in emotion. The young, inexperienced writer may have a feeling about a story idea, but, lacking mature writing skills needed to convert their feelings into words, easily becomes frustrated and views writing as an insurmountable task. Visualization techniques helps level the playing field and gives them a leg up on the processes involved in converting ideas into words. It’s a good bridge between visual and verbal facets of telling story.
As Lotze further refines his research, he may well motivate the development of new ways to assist young writers in making the transition from the visual world to the narrative one filled with interactive dialogue. Knowing how the brain processes work, young writers would be better able to learn how to employ the processes rather than stumble over them. It’s the distinction between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish. It’s easy for young writers to get stuck and frustrated, not because they lack competence but because they lack access to and understanding of the tools locked up in their craniums. Just knowing what distinguishes the intellectual processes of a novice from an expert writer enables younger (less experienced) writers to actively and consciously acquire the skills that will let them make the transition.
The research already shows that writing needs to be a daily activity and not a weekly one or confined to special projects. Those regions of the brain associated with creative writing need to be exercised as well as fed. The athlete learns early on of the need to exercise those muscles associated with the skill they want to acquire and hone. The same applies to writers.
Rethinking how we teach writing based on how the brain functions might not turn novices into Hemingways, but would likely increase the number of capable communicators who aren’t afraid to pick up the pen or put their fingers to the keyboard. Lotze’s research has lifted a veil of mystery about the writing process. Once lifted, writers and the teachers of writing can focus on new and better ways to help novices make the transition to expert. For now, the lesson for all of us is to write and think about not just what we write but how we write. A lot.