New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing.


outsiderFiction writers share several traits. Just about all of us were avid readers as children; and most are, or feel like, outsiders. We might have families and active social lives, but there is something in us that stands apart from even the most moving or fraught events: an observing, sorting, shaping eye. I imagine it is similar to the way professional photographers see the world, through movable frames invisible to the rest of us.

I’ll give you one example; every writer I know could cite his own. One of the most distressing days in my life came when my toddler son was acutely ill with respiratory distress. We spent 24 hours in a Brooklyn ER while he struggled to breathe, a tracheotomy kit tacked above his crib, and doctors worked to establish the cause. I was at his side the whole time, exhausted and deeply anxious; and yet, even then, part of me saw the scene through a writer’s eye. Certain things struck me during that long day, and they would provide both the inspiration and the setting for my third novel, A Heartbeat Away.

New research in neuroscience has discovered some interesting objective correlates to writers’ subjective experience. If writers feel different, it may be because they are different. Experiments by researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany, as reported recently by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to observe activity in the brains of two groups of subjects: experienced fiction writers and a control group of novice writers. All subjects were read several lines of a story. They were asked to brainstorm for a few minutes about continuing the story and then to write for two minutes.

The results for the two groups were markedly different.

During the brainstorming sessions, the brains of the novice writers lit up in the visual area. It seems as if envisioning an imaginary scene uses the same mental muscles as actually experiencing it.

mad scientistThis, by the way, seems to me to correlate with earlier research, also through fMRI technology, into the brain activity of people reading fiction. Readers’ brains reacted just as they would if the experiences in the story were real. When descriptions evoked the senses, the appropriate sensory areas of the brain lit up. Interactions between characters activated the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which may explain why readers can form deep and lasting relationships with fictional characters. When non-writers write fiction, they use the same parts of the brain as they would in reading fiction.

The brains of experienced writers reacted differently. During the brainstorming sessions, their brains showed increased activity in the areas involved in language, not vision. To me, this finding relates to my own experience and that of many other writers: that sense of standing outside events, observing, even describing them to oneself. Like photographers, writers frame life, processing it into narration even as they live it.

After the brainstorming sessions, when the two groups began to write their own lines, their brains continued to draw on different regions. In the expert writers’ brains, a region called the caudate nucleus was activated; not so in the brains of novice writers. This area of the brain plays a role in skills acquired with practice, including sports, music, and games. Actions that in the beginning require conscious effort become less conscious with practice, migrating to a deeper level of the brain.

As a teacher of fiction writing, I see this clearly in the development of beginning writers as they learn their craft. Initially, most struggle with maintaining a consistent point of view. POV in general is terrifically hard and confusing… until suddenly it’s not. After enough practice and feedback, it becomes second nature, not something one needs to think about while writing.

Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Remember the old warnings against taking drugs, because mind-altering substances can, well, alter minds? Turns out writing does, too.


For more on this subject, see this post.

For additional, sporadic outpourings from this brain, subscribe to this blog through the links to the right. 

Finally, I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.



16 thoughts on “New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing.

  1. Oh neat! My fiancé and I have speculated on what writing and that type of creativity (okay, so we were talking about gaming) does to the brain/in the brain. It’s awesome to hear about a study having been done.

    Though I do wonder how people were able to write in an fMRI. Aren’t you supposed to stay entirely still? (oh look, the NYtimes article addresses it…a desk attached to the writer’s writing arm. Again, that’s really neat!)

  2. And here I thought I was just an oddball. 🙂

    It is, however, both amazing and disturbing to realize that amid the saddest and most joyous moments in life, part of a person–a writer, at least–stands apart in his mind, observing all, taking in, editing, and filing away the experience for possible use in the future. I do sometimes feel a certain guilt in it, as though I’m missing some essential part of emotion.

  3. When I write, something magical happens to me. I get all righteous and preachy. In reality, I’m not righteous or preachy, just very observant. I think one of the things that keeps me from doing rather than observing is I don’t feel it’s my place to do, join, collaborate, insert myself, etc.

    However, when I write, it almost feels like I give my permission to do, join, collaborate, and insert myself. It’s never for bad, always for good. So, at least that makes me feel better about being righteous and preachy. lol

    It is mind-altering, true story!

  4. Well, that explains it! My hubby says I think differently. It doesn’t matter who I see in passing, I’m setting up a story for them. It can be a bit annoying if I tell him all of the thoughts, though. 😉

  5. Neat! I wouldn’t necessarily have expected this! I wonder at how early in one’s writing life this sort of divergence shows up? Especially for authors who’ve been crafting stories since they were kids.

    • I wonder too. And really, we don’t know much more than we know. What if it’s a chicken and egg sort of thing? Do writers become writers because that’s how they’re wired, or does the wiring change through the act of writing?

  6. Glad to know I’m not alone. hehe However, I think I may be a bit more visual than most. Does anyone else tend to act out what characters are doing or facial expressions? I know I get laughed at all the time for my dramatics while writing. Sometimes I even ask someone nearby to do it for me, so I can describe it. I had written a post similar to this last week using an infographic I came across. It said that writing can be like meditation, and writers can get into a “zone” while writing. I can totally relate.

    • With you on “the zone.” And if you read the original NYT piece cited in my post, researchers did find similar workings in the brains of professional athletes and musicians.

  7. This is really fascinating! But I do wonder when the change occurs. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but it was only a few years ago that I realized that I wasn’t writing from scenes in my head anymore and instead writing down the voice in my head. I hope there will be more studies like this.

  8. My most recent moment like this was when I thought I’d broken my ankle. (Just a bad sprain, but it’s still weak to this day.) Most people would be thinking, “I hope this doesn’t run me up a big hospital bill,” or “Gee, maybe I shouldn’t have jumped off that soft mound of dirt onto uneven ground,” but my thought was “I’ll bet this is how character X felt when he broke his leg.”

    • Ouch! You’ve clearly got better writer instincts than me. I broke my wrist a couple of years ago, thanks to my dear German shepherds, and all I could think at the time was “Damn this hurts!”

  9. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links | No Wasted Ink

  10. Barbara,
    What an interesting blog entry. Doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve felt that way all my life. Nice to know the skill is getting embedded. Congrats on all your work and new book coming out. I’m going to get mine out too even if I have to self publish- too much work to not validate between two wonderfully abstract Mandallas I design. Best. PS I know ten thousand plus writers are doing it, but, this %%&^$ campaign should generate a lot of serious, analytic, comic books. Trump is like the Joker in Batman. Off to write.

Your thoughts?