Writing and the Brain

This is an excerpt from fascinating article on writing and its origins within the brain from Writing Like Crazy: a Word on the Brain by Alice Weaver Flaherty. It explores the biological and social factors contributing to the conditions of hypergraphia (the overwhelming urge to write) and writer’s block.

But how to explain — and help — people who know how to write, seem to want desperately to write, and yet do not? This question is, of course, a special case of what to do with creative block in all fields. The scourge of block, and its handmaid procrastination, have been documented since the ancient Egyptians, who had two separate hieroglyphs for the latter. Does writer’s block have a neurological basis that is the opposite of hypergraphia? Yes — in certain respects. Block is highly associated with depression, just as hypergraphia is with mania. And block shares with depression some features of frontal-lobe alteration, including lack of initiative and excessive self-criticism. There is evidence for a push-pull interaction between temporal and frontal lobes in creativity, an axis that turns sideways the 1970s theory of right brain-left brain interactions. While a link between block and depression seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that professional writers often suffer from depression, the fact is that talented writers are actually more likely to be blocked than poor writers. (This is true outside of literature as well. The tremendous outpouring of Leonardo da Vinci’s ideas, for instance, was matched only by his long list of giant unfinished projects.) Most writers with depression do their writing not while depressed, but while on the edge of a mood change, or in a rebound euphoria. Indeed, many writers who carry the diagnosis of depression actually have mild bipolar disorder. This in part explains why writers can have odd combinations of block and hypergraphia simultaneously. For instance, the modern equivalent of Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon, blocked on his grand Key to All Mythologies, may instead turn out megabytes of e-mail messages and blogs a day.

Such genre specificity in block is more evidence that block is not a problem with cortical writing skills but with limbic drives. Yet many college programs fight block with cognitive strategies, such as making an outline and brainstorming, or with cognitive-behavioral therapy. While these are often appropriate, remembering that block is a brain state as well as a mental state can provide alternate approaches — and not necessarily involving drugs such as antidepressants or stimulants. For instance, a writer who finds that his creativity and productivity plummet around Thanksgiving and Christmas every year may blame his lack of motivation, or wonder if the stress of seeing his dysfunctional family twice in two months is what is doing it. Yet a significant winter dip in creative output has been documented by researchers for artists in general. It is most likely due to shorter day length, which triggers an unpleasant hibernation instinct even in those of us who don’t have full-blown seasonal affective disorder. The writer described here may therefore find setting a small light box on the table next to his breakfast cereal would have a more immediate benefit to his productivity than would working through issues with his mother — although the latter option, of course, may have other benefits.

It’s a lengthy article, but well worth the time to read.

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