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Writing Is Freedom: The Neuroscience of Writing


Writing is an act that links the brain machinery to our emotions.

On the subject of writing there is clearly no better authority than the writer. Literature thinks itself, and thus testimonies on the act of writing are abundant in personal essays and lists; and almost all of them are at hand’s reach. But we rarely give science the opportunity to tell us about writing. After all, she has the privileged access to that story-telling machinery we so yearn to decipher. How is the brain molded through writing?

In order to carry out a new study on the relation of the brain and creativity, researchers compared MRI scans of the brains of experienced and rookie writers. The results are, at the very least, surprising.

The procedure was as follows:

Scientists selected twenty writers with at least a decade of experience (people who on average write 21 hours a week) and twenty-eight beginners (who write for about an hour a week). The forty-eight were given the beginning of a story so that, first, they would brainstorm ideas for a possible ending. Afterwards they were asked to write a story in a two-minute period. In the meantime they were all connected to a brain scanner.

The frontal lobe of the more experienced writers showed greater activity (as would be expected), particularly in the area related to language and goal selection. This region is associated with the processing of emotional language, like interpretation of gestures. This suggests that the experienced writer has a greater capacity to come into contact with the emotional part of writing and language.

Additionally, the veterans’ brains showed greater activity in the left caudate nucleus, which is used in learning processes and cognitive activities. In turn, the brains of less experienced writers turned to the visual areas of the brain.

During the brainstorm, the first group’s brains showed greater activity in the areas associated with discourse processing, which suggests that in their brains ideas are born during the process that ranges from conception to expression, that is, they have already been conceived before they are expressed.

Many experienced writers solved the unfinished story with descriptions of emotions and metaphors. And although this may seem irrelevant at first sight, it means that constant writing molds the brain so that we associate language with emotions, and we do so almost as soon as we pick up a pen.

If, as Susan Sontag said, “literature is freedom”, the results of this study suggest that writing, also, is freedom. By writing we unblock those profoundly emotional places of the cerebral cortex and impress them there, in the possibility of an encounter with a reader.

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