Thursday, December 01, 2005

Creative Writing in Your Brain

With all the same caveats regarding scientific assessments of creativity, here's what your brain looks like when you're writing creatively (a blog perhaps?).

Some of the particular brain activations reflect the nature of the creative paradigm: invent a story using the words provided, with some prompts to "Be Creative" for certain trials (creativity was also assessed by some sort of consensus group later).

This task did not seem to powerfully activate imagery areas - perhaps rather this sort of creative exercise was more analytical, pulling out words from personal or episodic memory, and weaving them together into a narrative.

If we have to be creative for a living or serious hobby, it's probably good to be aware that idea generation from an analytical approach is different from the more imagistic kind involving the parietal lobes.

The right prefrontal area also took a front seat in this creative writing task - likely using its expertise in inference-making, pattern recognition, and personal memory retrieval. Involvement of the limbic (emotional) areas of the brain shouldn't surprise us, because playing with ideas is a kick.

Creative Story Generation and fMRI
Right Prefrontal and Episodic Retrieval
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Finding and Retrieving Patterns


  1. Anonymous11:26 PM

    I'm a professional author, and I'd LOVE to participate in a study like this. Too cool!


  2. Anonymous10:39 AM

    If creative writing doesn't much involve the imagery areas... what does that imply for those who think in images, rather than in words...?


  3. We'll post on that for tomorrow. This study is very semantic - and may not involve images - or at least not as much as painting in your brain.

    When you are creative with words, you can retrieve word clusters and associations (sounds, different meanings, different connotations) that are not necessarily associated with images.

    You can also creatively examine different possibilities - if-then's like in a causal chain - or flipping perspective.

    Creativity list approaches (like some of De Bono's) use this, but it's analytic more than imagistic-imaginative.

    Depending on what your situation may be - one approach may be more effective (for a particular type of problem ) than the other.

  4. Anonymous5:12 AM

    I think in essences, which are neither words nor images. They are a "feeling" in the sensory meaning of the word--and also in the emotional and experiential sense, to a lesser degree. It is NOT synesthesia. It is an entirely different sensory experience that is like sight and sound and taste and touch and smell in the way that taste and smell are like each other, or in the way that sight and hearing are like each other. But just because taste and smell are similar in certain ways doesn't mean that they are the same sense.

    Thinking in words is crippling to a writer because words interfere with what a thing IS--that is, you are bound by the words in your head instead of having the freedom to find and make words that fit the shape of your pure-thought. (As you see, language has distinct limits in situations like this because there are not even words for what I am trying to convey here, and so if I were contrained by words, I could not even have the thought that I am now trying to express!)

    I would also think that true "literal" imagery would make things difficult because you would be locked into a kind of describing-a-movie sort of situation that could only be awkward, at best. You live through a situation when you write creatively, making all sorts of associations (when it's working well) and seeing into multiple layers of thought, motivation, reaction, and outcomes. You don't merely see and describe what's going on.


  5. Reya, is it possible that you think spatially, through spatial sense like positions or movement?

    You are right about words. Words can be very narrowing - perhaps that's why some writers like word salad approaches to thinking through their ideas, or using a nonsense word as a place keeper for an idea.

    At least in some brain studies that look at reasoning, the dominant area is the parietal lobe, an area traditionally associated with spatial sense, but now we know contains multisensory neurons.

  6. Anonymous3:15 PM

    It's SORT of spacial, and there is absolutely a feeling of relational distance between one aspect of the thought and the next, but that's only one way of looking at it that strips it of all its other parts.

    I actually just wrote a blog entry about this in answer to people who asked me about how writing *works* for me, and it can be extended to all thoughts of more than basic complexity. I remember with great clarity how I used to think when I was pre-verbal, and there is little difference aside from complexity. Also, I am VERY neurologically abnormal, I've discovered. *g* I've learned from this blog that I have prosopagnosia and that my whole-to-parts processing of letters is just plain weird. *g* I voted "forces and symbols" about how I think...but then again, that isn't it, either.

    Anyhow, this is v. long, but this is the post:

    What is your grandmother's house? Not, “what is it as a physical place of wood and brick and carpet,” but as a mental-emotional construct that is as much grandmother as it is house--what *is* it? This is what I mean by the essence of the thing--not every detail, not a picture of a specific memory but a kind of amalgamation of feeling and experience, the faint, finger-print smell of the place (whether perfume, Glade, or a hint of gas from the inefficient stove), memories of a dozen Christmases, your grandparents themselves, the view of the kitchen when you were three, of the jade plant on the dining room table when you were eight, of the toys that used to belong to your parent and uncles or aunts, of summer visits and winter holidays.... All of this and so much more that would take pages and pages to describe, wrapped up into a single, discrete mental object that has a sense-feeling of its own that is neither smell nor taste nor sight yet has something to do with all of these things--THAT is how I think.

    Most thought-essences are small and bright, something you could hold in your hand, and they often burst abruptly into being as a discrete being. They are mutable, as well—“looking” at them changes them. Books are more gradual and complicated. Most of the time, I merely turn them around in my head, looking at different sides, and push on them a bit, prodding them into new shapes and bumping them against each other to make them into more complete and accurate wholes. To unpack them into words is at times necessary, sometimes for communication but also more a more rigorous, formal analysis to ensure that things are what I believe them to be. (I am using the language here of objects and space, but this is like saying that “baking smells brown”—it is meaningful yet at the same time essentially inaccurate.)

    Now this is how I write my books. I take a spinning, glittering, basketball-sized essence that is the book-as-a-whole, and it throws out pieces of light, fragments and bits and pictures and feelings and scenes. (Now I am being visual and equally inaccurate…) I turn it this way and that to get the overall picture of what it might be, but it is not a static thing--the deeper I look, the more it grows definite, shadows and fuzzy edges crystallizing into reality. Individual scenes and “elements” are smaller and simpler, being cast off in tennis-ball-size or smaller pieces with shallower depths and that are easier to look into and fewer sides and shards, and though they are separate, they are still an inherent piece of the book-as-a-whole, and changes in one change everything else.

    But where does the book as a whole come from? For me, it is really the cross between a pearl and a conglomeration....that is, there is some ordinary bit of mind-detritus that, through time, begins to gather thought-substance upon it. This can happen gradually or in a flash. And that bit picks up certain other bits that it meets until they stick together and are covered with the more unifying-thought-substance. Once it is the size of a kernel of corn, I know I have something that can become a full story, and so I write down a handle for it in a file so that I will be able to “find it” again if it gets lost whenever I might need it since ordinarily, it is likely to get forgotten and never to go past that stage.

    Then, if I need the book or want to continue thinking on it for no particular reason, I begin to turn it over and over in my mind, layering nacre upon it and feeding deliberately it with other, external things. And then...something happens, and it sort of *lights up*, and no longer is it opaque and cluttered, drinking in light, but it is a fabulous, faceted thing that has bright edges and deceptive clarity and begins to shine and spin and change, all on its own. (This is more and more inaccuracy, as there is no light and no movement, and yet it LIKE light and movement…) It is a ball (but not really), and yet from one direction (that doesn’t exist), you can see a single point, and from another, there are a hundred facets, and from another, it is all edge, and from another, its sides take on an MC Escher-like complexity. And from each side and view and depth, I can get one piece of understanding about what the whole is.

    And then I try to take this book-as-a-whole, a thing that has no properties and yet many properties and could never exist in any dimension, and put it onto paper and to make it a story. I take coherent paths through the thing and turn them into threads and weave them with words that “taste” (without any real taste-sense, though) the way certain views of the ball “tastes”….and that becomes a book.

    Some writers talk about the scenes inside their heads being so much better than what is on the paper. I do not have anything in my head as definite as a *scene* in a way that truly relates to what other people might refer to, and so I have never had that reaction. I write things that taste right--or I don't. But there is no internal movie that I am trying to faithfully reproduce, nor anything that would look like what a person would think of as a story.

    I try to choose important threads, threads that resonate and that tell the entirety of the story best. Often, I have so many that I am frightened, though if I do it right, readers will see the whole tapestry, not the separate threads that make it up, and they won't even realize how I sweated and fretted and struggled. But no matter how fabulous or horrible the product is, it cannot be compared to its origins in my mind. It is grossly simplified, just as a portrait is simplified from everything that the person who sits for it is, has been, will be...

  7. Anonymous3:19 PM

    Oh, and that was me, of course. *g*

    My works in progress often have "____" instead of a word/description/whatever that I can't come up with at that moment!


  8. Terry Dolson8:04 AM

    Are you familiar with the book "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess : The Conflict Between Word and Image" by Leonard Shlain? I was so interested in his ideas about the evolution from images to language and now a recombining of the two, that I have my college freshmen working on a project where they have to employ images and words and a controlling metaphor to explain a process or concept. My sense so far is that they can either focus on words or images, but not both at the same time. The leap to metaphor which involves words as abstract images is very hard for them--harder than I thought it would be. Are you familiar with Shlain's ideas? Do you have any insights for how I might help my 18 year olds progress to bringing words and pictures together?

  9. Anonymous2:47 PM

    I thought you meant the Eides, but I realized with your reference to metaphor (since my comment was full of it) that you might mean me! If not, I apologize, but I don't want to leave you hanging!

    Actually, I haven't read the book, and I'm afraid I'm no help in teaching the creation of metaphors because I just hold something in my mind and think of what else it "tastes" like. *g* It's instictive. I'm not sure how it could work for someone who thinks more "normally" that I do.

    People who think that there is a typical evolution from images (as infants) to words (as speaking adults) are using themselves as a norm and are excluding the experiences of many, many other people. There are lots of people who must always use a "translator" when using words--or even images. It doesn't mean that we are "not developed." I feel that too many people are bound by their vocabulary and/or their ability to visualize something when many things can't be described exactly in words OR drawn precisely in pictures. They seem so limiting--but this is someone from the outside speaking, of course, and of COURSE I enjoy my own ways of thinking. *g*


  10. Hi. We're still on the road, but got a chance to check in the blog.

    Interesting comments. Reya, I wonder if what resonates is partially sensory (matching to experience) and emotional.

    Language is notoriously limiting, so that when we need to reframe our thinking, one strategy is to reformulate a problem in different words. The words are limiting the understanding of the problem. Visual brainstorming also is a strategy to get beyond this.

    Terry - you're right the worlds of pictures and words they - can be difficult to bridge. We haven't heard of the Shlain book, but it sounds like an interesting one.

    Words can be just semantic definitions, word-associations, sounds and auditory imagery, and visual imagery.

    Other languages (like written Chinese) don't have as great separation between word and picture, of course.

    Is it possible that semantic maps or typology (e.g. visual representations of words) could make the transition without getting into metaphor? By the latter, I was thinking of word pictures, hand-drawn letters, with different visual features or colors to represent the word. Is that what you were thinking of?