What part of your brain does the writing?

Reading time: About 2 minutes

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss an article written by New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer.

What parts of our brains are working when we write? That question has fascinated me for more than 30 years. I tie my interest in this subject to the marvellous book Writing The Natural Way by Gabriele Rico, originally published in 1983.

In her book, Rico argues, convincingly, that parts of our brain are good at linear, logical thinking while other parts excel at being creative. It was Rico who led me to the concept of mindmapping for writers, although she used a different term: clustering.

According to the theory of the day, Rico described the creative part of our brain as the “right” side, although more recent research has shown it to be more complicated than left vs. right. But how complicated?

It thrilled me to learn in a recent New York Times article, written by Carl Zimmer and headlined “This is Your Brain Writing,” that German researchers have started exploring this precise question. And here’s the thing that interested me: Professionally trained writers seem to show similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, such as music and sports.

I was fascinated to see the lengths to which researchers had to go to address this question. Functional MRI machines (known as fMRIs) generally require subjects to stay very still. The German researchers have adjusted the software, however, to allow for minimal movement. Making things even more challenging, the subjects could not use laptops for writing (the fMRI uses powerful magnets that would throw the machine across the room) so researchers rigged up a writing desk, complete with mirrors, allowing subjects to write while lying down. (Photo above.)

And here is what the researchers found: Deep inside the brains of expert writers, a region called the caudate nucleus becomes active. In the beginners, however, the caudate nucleus remains quiet. This region — which exists on both sides of the brain — is thought to play a particular role in activities requiring practise. Think about playing tennis or golf or the piano or a saxophone. Or, writing.

Here was another interesting difference between experienced writers and beginners: During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.

It’s far too early to call any of these results “definitive.” Still, I’m grateful that researchers are exploring these questions and I’ll be fascinated to hear the ongoing debate about the science behind writing.