How your writerly brain works

Writing every day has many benefits, as a writer by trade one of those benefits may very well be getting paid and being able to eat, but there are some more.

According to some sources writing every day will grow your vocabulary, make you more organised, banish writers block, and improve your memory. But how it does this is something that not many people know or discuss.


In 2014 Dr Lotze from the University of Greifswald in Germany conducted a small study using functional Magnetic Resonance (fMIR) which had interesting results (which are published in NueroImage). They found, in fact, that professional/expert writers have many aspects of their brain activity in common with professional athletes.

The 40 volunteers (28 experienced writers enrolled in/who had taken creative writing classes, and 20 raw beginners) first completed a copying exercise so that Dr Lotze could get a baseline for brain activity. They were then given the first two lines of a short story and one minute to plan before writing their own story.

The findings were interesting; in the planning stage all writers saw an increase in activity in the vision processing centres of the brain which suggests that, when you plan, you are “seeing” scenes, characters, and ideas. During the writing stage the differences between the groups began to show, however. While both groups saw an increase in activity in the hippocampus (the area of your brain which deals with memory), but only the experienced writers had an increase in the activity of areas of the brain which deal with speech.  This suggests that practised writers engage an “inner monologue” in order to plan and execute plots and ideas as they write; practise and study really does affect the way you write in a traceable manner.


Most interestingly, however, in practised writers the Caudate Nucleus (a component of the basal ganglia linked to memory and sensory input) became more active during the process of writing. This part of the brain can be seen to show increased activity in the brains of professional athletes, and those who take part in activities which require intensive training and discipline. In short, practising writing regularly requires the same dedication, focus, and hard work as training to compete athletically.


So, when you write you’re doing so much more than putting pen to paper in a physical sense; you are engaging your memory, speech, and vision centres along with the cluster of cells known as the recticular activating system (RAS) in order to focus properly. Of course, this is all very raw still; Lotze told a New York Times reporter that

“Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study”

There’s so much more to why and how we write, of course; Steven Pinker (a respected cognitive scientist, the same one that called music “auditory cheesecake”!) stipulates that writing can serve a biologically adaptive purpose, much like gossip. It helps us to catalogue and find solutions to problems we may face in our own lives, he states, and so we writers may actually be more prepared to deal with the problems life may throw at us….

You know, assuming they involve Zombies, nuclear fallout, sexy teenage vampires and werewolves, or the kinds of issues that come with attendance at a Magic school…

Your writerly brain is engaged, complex, and possibly a bit batty; embrace that.

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