Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Can a brain scan tell us anything about the art of creative writing?

When an accomplished creative writer gets on with their craft, their brain operates in a somewhat different way to a novice's. A new imaging study suggests that the expert approach may be more streamlined, emotionally literate, and initially unfiltered.

Katharina Erhard with her colleagues from the German universities of Greifswald and Hildesheim asked participants to read a fragment of a story, to brainstorm what could continue the narrative, and then, for two minutes, to write a continuation of the story. Their brains were scanned throughout. This is an improvement on previous studies that have simply involved participants imagining a story while lying in a scanner.

Participants were 20 experts - students on competitive creative writing courses with over 10 years experience and a weekly average of 21 hours practice - and 28 novices practicing less than an hour per week. Independent judges considered the experts' writing significantly more creative: "unmade laundry, unloved days" was how one expert closed his response to an account of a bitter bachelor killing himself in a laundry, whereas a tale of a violinist losing his instrument in the snow conjured this image: "the glacier, winding its tongue around the sounds, suddenly gulped the violin". The differences between expert and novice brain activation during the writing phase offers some tantalising clues to how such quality emerges.

In the frontal cortex, expert brains showed greater activity in areas crucial to language and goal selection, including across the inferior frontal gyri (IFG). Verbal creativity has been associated with left IFG activation many times before, but involvement of the right IFG was unexpected. The area is associated with emotional language processing, such as interpreting expressive gestures, so this may suggest that experts are attending more deeply to the emotional currents of text and their ideas. Together with recent evidence that metaphor comprehension recruits the right temporal lobe, this suggests a role for processes housed in the right hemisphere when a verbal task is more abstract and less factual.

Expert writing also involved more activation in the left caudate. This is part of the basal ganglia, long known to be critical to learning and expert performance, and seems to reflect ordinarily cortical cognitive processes becoming automatised and bundled together within the deeper brain. In this case, these may be to do with visually processing text, as the experts showed less activation in occipital areas involved in visual and perceptual processing.

One final finding: during brainstorming, expert brains showed increased activation relative to novices in several regions associated with speech production. Taking these findings together, they paint a picture of expert creative writers: ideas bubble within them, already on the road from concept to expression, readily communicable, almost rising into their throats. These are handled by neural systems streamlined to take care of the basics, while the writer devotes greater attention to the emotional interpretation of their text. It will be down to future researchers to verify or reject this characterisation - and hopefully, some great future writers to tell us about it. Maybe you.


Erhard, K., Kessler, F., Neumann, N., Ortheil, H., & Lotze, M. (2014). Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task NeuroImage, 100, 15-23 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.05.076

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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