Scientists in Germany recently have discovered that creative writing involves using various parts of our brains, your correspondents at the Dogpatch are not the first to report.
Researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany strapped willing participants into MRI scanners to track their brain activity while writing creatively. And this new research into the neuroscience of creative writing discovered that a broad network of regions in the brain all worked together when people are turning out a piece of fiction, which may not be news to discerning readers of the Dogpatch.
But what may come as news is that the inner workings of professionally trained writers showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions like music or sports.
The researchers at the University of Greifswald could not let their subjects use a laptop to write with because the magnetic field generated by an MRI scanner would have hurled it across the room. So subjects had to lie flat on their backs, while their writing arm rested on a desk nearby, as they scribbled on a piece of paper clipped to a board set at an incline beside them. A system of mirrors let them see what they were writing while their heads remained cocooned inside the scanner.
Some of you may be asking how creatively a person can be expected to write while lying flat on her back, her head strapped into an enormous, humming metal tube, but what perhaps cannot be in question is the elaborate nature of the protocols employed by the scientists at the University of Greifswald.
Before having their subjects attempt creative fiction, the researchers first had them simply copy out some text, giving them a baseline reading of the subjects’ brain activity during writing.
They then had their volunteers simply think about what they were planning to write. During these ‘brainstorming’ sessions, some vision-processing regions of the brain became active, suggesting that the subjects were, in effect, seeing the scenes they intended to write.
Finally they had their subjects write creative fiction, and here the researchers found that other regions of the brain were called into play, including the hippocampus, that part of the brain which retrieves factual information.
There was also activity noted in a region near the front of the brain that is crucial to holding several pieces of information in mind at once, suggesting that juggling several characters and plot lines may put special demands on it.
But the researchers at University of Greifswald recognized a big limit to their study: none of the participants had prior experience writing fiction.
Would the brains of full-time writers respond differently?
Your correspondents at the Dogpatch are not the first to announce that when the researchers recruited 20 writers from the creative writing program at the University of Hildesheim, they discovered that the brains of the full-time writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper.
Going through the same research protocols as the novice writers, during the brainstorming exercises these ‘expert’ writers showed more activity in those regions of the brain involving speech, whereas the novice writers activated their visual centers. The researchers in Germany theorized that the novices were watching their stories unfold like films inside their heads, while the writers were narrating it with an inner voice.
The other interesting discovery to unfold during their research was that deep inside the brain of experienced writers a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices this region was inactive.
The caudate nucleus is a familiar part of the brain for scientists who study expertise. It plays an essential role in any skill that comes with practice, including activities like sports or playing a musical instrument, even board games.
When we first learn a skill — playing a piano or learning to play basketball, for instance — 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, proving once again that ‘practice makes perfect’ and further reinforcing that not-so-revolutionary thought that writing every day makes one a better writer.