What happens when you put a writer into a fMRI Scanner and map their brain while they write? A team from the Functional Imaging Unit, at the Institute for Diagnostic Radiology and Neuroradiology, and their colleagues from the Institute for Creative Writing and Cultural Journalism, both in Germany, had twenty-eight writers to do just that. (1) The researchers wanted to know which areas of the brain ‘light up’ during a creative writing session. Each writer brainstormed a story and then wrote ‘a new and creative continuation of a given literary text’,(2). The task is based on a modified version of Linda Flower and John R. Hayes’s model of the process involved in creative writing.
It was found that
‘‘brainstorming’’ involves fronto-parieto-temporal brain activity for generating novel and original ideas and composing the concept of the story. The observed premotor activity in ‘‘brainstorming’’ indicates the integrated preparation of the writing process. ‘‘Creative writing’’ combines handwriting processes and cognitive writing processes, which are predominantly associated with episodic memory, semantic integration, and a free associative and spontaneous cognitive text production. (p13)
The researchers also investigated the verbal aspect of ‘‘creative writing’’ and found it involved the left fronto-temporal network.
I’m not a neuroscientist, so the significance of these specific networks is lost on me, and Flower and Hayes’ theory of how writers approach their craft is not the only one. The point is, science confirms what writers have always known: writers are thinkers and writing is thinking on the page. It’s tempting to associate ‘creativity’ with magic, mysticism and even ‘divine inspiration’. It can certainly feel like that when writing goes well. Scientific studies confirm, however, that creative writing is the result of perception, learning, reason, analysis and critical thinking.
As studies of the brain continue, neuroscientists will provide detailed information about how writers write. I hope these studies are combined with investigations into how the brain develops, reacts to and heals post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. Maybe then we will understand why and how therapeutic writing works. For now, to paraphrase John Lennon, it is enough to know that when writers write their brains ‘shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun’ and that is why I love to write.
Flower, Linda, and John R. Hayes, ‘A cognitive process theory of writing’ in College composition and communication, 32.4 (1981), pp. 365-387.
Shah, Carolin, et al. ‘Neural correlates of creative writing: an fMRI study’ in Human Brain Mapping, 34.5 (2013), pp. 1088-1101.