Drawing Blanks: The Science Behind Writer’s Block

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Guest Post by Writer Vigilance Chari

Are you suffering from a bit of writer's block? Don't fret: Many of history's most acclaimed writers have experienced an interruption in the flow of their creative juices.

The topic has been so prevalent that there has been quite a bit of study on its origins, by both philosophers and scientists alike, hoping to shed some new light on the condition.

What makes writer's block difficult to understand is that there is often very little commonality in experience. It cannot be clinically diagnosed, and you won't find cures for it on WebMD. Nevertheless, as poet and essayist Julia Spicher Kasdorf -- director of the Master of Fine Arts program at Penn State -- says, writer's block is "as real as any kind of anxiety."

So if we're not sure what causes it, what can we do to address writer's block? First, let's look at what we do know about the potential source of this condition.

Writer's Block as a Brain State

Although there haven't been direct studies on people experiencing writer's block to identify specific causes, other approaches can be used to determine which parts of the brain are affected when someone has writer's block.

Drawing Blanks: The Science Behind Writer's Block | Seattle Central College - Continuing Education
The anterior view of Broca's area - Wikimedia Commons

For instance, since one of the fundamental characteristics of writer's block is the inability to write down words, analyzing where language resides in the brain can give us some useful insight.

Language is one of the skills that is processed by the left frontal lobe. The significance of the role that the frontal lobe plays in word formation was first reported by French physician Paul Broca, who deduced that damage to this area resulted in the inability to construct words, a condition called aphasia. Fittingly, the left side of the frontal lobe is nowadays called Broca's area.

We could also look at writer's block as the inability to develop a story. For most writers, forming words isn't as much of a problem as figuring out what should happen on the next page.

Several studies have looked into the concept of "creating stories" and the areas of the brain that are involved. The most reasonable conclusions were drawn from experiments involving an fMRI scanner -- MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow to various parts of the brain.

In one study, participants were given three words and asked to create a story around them. The fMRI scanner detected a significant increase in activity on both sides of the prefrontal cortex: The left side, where Broca's area is located, and the right side, where the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is situated. The ACC is associated with establishing logical relations between concepts and decision-making, both of which are crucial skills for a great writer.

Drawing Blanks: The Science Behind Writer's Block | Seattle Central College - Continuing Education
Anterior cingulate cortex highlighted in yellow - Wikipedia

In another study, scientists sought to determine the parts of the brain that were related to critical thinking and brainstorming by asking participants to write an actual story.

While in the fMRI scanner, the subjects were given the first 30 words of a story, asked to brainstorm a possible continuation, and then allowed two minutes to complete the story. The stories were then scored based on the level of creativity, and measured against the brain activity recorded by the scanner.

The entire process was characterized by increased activity in the frontal lobe, with the subsections involved being those primarily associated with planning and memory. The motor cortex also exhibited increased blood flow relative to the physical act of writing the story.

Therefore, when we talk of writer's block, we may actually mean "creative block" -- the biological inhibition of the brain to make the connections and plans that lead to creative writing.

Unlike other physiological conditions, however, there's no pill you can take to make writer's block go away. So, what can you do to fight it?

Loosening the Frontal Lobe

Increasing brain activity in the frontal lobe is an unpredictable psychological process. Sometimes it's the simple things that work when complicated remedies fail.

Regardless, it's entirely possible to come out of writer's block. You just need to find the remedy that works for you.

1. Do something else that's creative

Drawing Blanks: The Science Behind Writer's Block | Seattle Central College - Continuing EducationSometimes all your frontal lobe needs is a jolt from a different kind of energy source. If you've been coming up blank the past week, take a break and learn something new.

Try painting, photography, music, poetry, or any other form of art that captures your attention differently. Physical activities like gardening or repairing that old car in the garage could also work.

Engage in a different project for a few hours, and then get back to your writing. The key is to keep exercising your frontal lobe and, eventually, you'll tap back into the writing flow.

2. Freewrite

As a more direct approach than starting a new project, freewriting challenges your brain, particularly the frontal lobe, to come up with words and a story.

When you're feeling stonewalled, take a deep breath and proceed to write down everything that comes to mind about your topic non-stop for ten minutes. And, if the words don't come, write "blah blah blah," over and over. If other thoughts occur to you that are not related to your story, write them down, too. These distractions may be among the reasons why you're blocked.

You could also start your day by engaging in a stream-of-consciousness style of writing for 30 minutes, writing down everything that comes to mind -- especially if its unrelated to your topic. This can serve to 'prime the pump' later in the day, and gives you a structured opportunity to express what's on your mind outside of the confines of your story.

3. Come up with a schedule

Although some writers prefer to write only when they feel most inspired, establishing a routine can keep your frontal lobe from slipping into a creative block.

As renowned artist Chuck Close once said, "Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work."

Plan your writing process, and try as much as possible to stick to a schedule. Taking advantage of the brain's habitual nature can keep you focused when you need to be writing.

4. Change your environment

Drawing Blanks: The Science Behind Writer's Block | Seattle Central College - Continuing EducationWriting, like many creative activities, requires that one be present. This means that, although you may not know it, the environment you're in is an integral aspect of your process.

When writer's block hits, changing the scene can help to freshen your mind. If your primary writing tool is a desktop PC, buying a light and compact laptop will enable you to step out of the house and find new inspiration.

A different writing environment, such as the park or the nice restaurant across the street could be what your frontal lobe needs to get back to work.

5. Move your body

The biological aspect of writer's block involves reduced rate of blood flow to the frontal lobe. Increasing your heart rate with physical exercise can be a good way to give your brain a much-needed kick into gear.

Dance, do yoga, go out for a run, or take your dog out for some playtime. Sometimes even a few minutes of meditating and deep breathing exercises can help to relax and focus your mind.

More than anything, try to remember that if you're going through writer's block, don't let it dampen your creative spirit. Being stuck doesn't mean you're not smart enough, skilled enough, or don't have anything to say. The human brain is remarkable, but it's not perfect, and it often leads us down some very negative rabbit holes if we let it.

Just keep in mind that the best way to overcome writer's block is to just do it: Write! Every writer will experience a block in their creativity, but the difference between the hobbyists and the professionals is that while one allows creative block to discourage them, the other simply pushes through.

About the Author

Vigilance Chari is an international presenter and published author who currently covers tech gadgets and college laptops for LaptopNinja.

When not writing, she spends her time as an enthusiastic professional party planner and part-time painter.


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