The part of the brain you should listen to when writing
In This is your brain on writing, Carl Zimmer writes:
A novelist scrawling away in a notebook in seclusion may not seem to have much in common with an NBA player doing a reverse layup on a basketball court before a screaming crowd. But if you could peer inside their heads, you might see some striking similarities in how their brains were churning.
The article caught my attention because, actually, I love basketball. I play it a couple of times a week, though not as much as I used to. I tell myself I'm getting older now (I'm 38), so I'm not as good anymore. But I still play it addictively. Besides a state of flow, what's the connection between basketball and writing?
Some regions of the brain became active only during the creative process, but not while copying, the researchers found. During the brainstorming sessions, some vision-processing regions of volunteers became active. It's possible that they were, in effect, seeing the scenes they wanted to write.
This doesn't seem too surprising. Certain regions of the brain light up when you get creative. Why wouldn't they? Then it gets really interesting here:
As the scientists report in a new study in the journal NeuroImage, the brains of expert writers appeared to work differently, even before they set pen to paper. During brainstorming, the novice writers activated their visual centers. By contrast, the brains of expert writers showed more activity in regions involved in speech.
"I think both groups are using different strategies,” Dr. Lotze said. It's possible that the novices are watching their stories like a film inside their heads, while the writers are narrating it with an inner voice.
In other words, there are two groups of writers. The novice writers watch the stories in their heads like a film. The expert writers hear the words they are to write with an inner voice.
I think many writers have listened to an inner voice in their heads while writing, particularly when deep in a creative post or chapter. It doesn't always happen for me, perhaps partly because I don't write fiction, but sometimes it does, especially if I listen for it. Zimmer identifies a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus that becomes active. Zimmer explains:
When the two groups [the novice writers and expert writers] started to write, another set of differences emerged. Deep inside the brains of expert writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet.
The caudate nucleus is a familiar part of the brain for scientists like Dr. Lotze who study expertise. It plays an essential role in the skill that comes with practice, including activities like board games.
When we first start learning a skill — be it playing a piano or playing basketball — we use a lot of conscious effort. With practice, those actions become more automatic. The caudate nucleus and nearby regions start to coordinate the brain's activity as this shift happens.
I'm not entirely sure how to apply the article — perhaps the less creative I am, the worse basketball I play? There might be a connection between the two. This past month I've not been creative at all, and I've been playing terrible basketball.
The caudate nucleus has other dimensions as well. I remember one time reading something about scientific experiments with nuns during religious experiences. In Searching for God in the Brain, David Biello writes:
The researchers found six regions that were invigorated only during the nuns' recall of communion with God. The spiritual memory was accompanied by, for example, increased activity in the caudate nucleus, a small central brain region to which scientists have ascribed a role in learning, memory and, recently, falling in love; the neuroscientists surmise that its involvement may reflect the nuns' reported feeling of unconditional love.
Although there are six regions identified, the caudate nucleus is one of them. It lights up during religious experience.
I think that many spiritual people experience a sense of an inner voice communicating with them, giving them direction in the form of quiet narrations — just like those words that form while writing in a creative state.
I've always been fascinated by creativity. If I learned anything during my MFA at Columbia, it was to feel a sense of infinite creativity. I always thought basketball and religion were distractions that took away from my time to write. Not many of my Dead-Poets-Society-type friends in college were sports people, so I'd always considered the connection between writing, basketball, and religion to be somewhat of a unique combination of completely unrelated activities.
Reading Zimmer's article, I'm starting to think that my involvement in the three spheres of activity was no coincidence. Maybe I'm good at basketball because I'm creative. Maybe spiritual experiences (more a part of my past than now) are an extension of the same creative source.
Then again, I'm too much of a skeptic to put any real stock in the latest brain science.
It seems the caudate nucleus is responsible for a variety of other functions as well. From the BBC, we learn that the caudate nucleus lights up when people trust each other:
Activity in the caudate nucleus was greatest when the investor repaid generosity with generosity and most subdued when the investor repaid generosity with stinginess.
According to the researchers, this suggested that the caudate nucleus receives or computes information about both the fairness of a social partner's decision and the intention to repay that decision with trust.
Wikipedia expands the role of the caudate nucleus even more:
The caudate nucleus has been implicated with voluntary movement, learning, memory, sleep, and social behavior.
Perhaps the most interesting passage in that Wikipedia article is regarding language:
Neuroimaging studies reveal that people who can communicate in multiple languages activate exactly the same brain regions regardless of the language. A 2006 publication studies this phenomenon and identifies the caudate as a center for language control. In perhaps the most illustrative case, a trilingual subject with a lesion to the caudate was observed. The patient maintained language comprehension in her three languages, but when asked to produce language, she involuntarily switched between the three languages. In short, "these and other findings with bilingual patients suggest that the left caudate is required to monitor and control lexical and language alternatives in production tasks."
In other words, one part of the caudate nucleaus helps switch your mode of speech to the right language.
Now let's take it one step further and move to the supernatural realm. From Lilyandbeyond, we learn:
Little is known about the supernatural abilities of the caudate nucleus, an anatomical part of the brain partially responsible for learning and memory. When activated, the caudate nucleus is capable of numerous supranormal abilities, e.g., telepathy, clairvoyance, teleportation, bilocation, telekinesis, remote viewing, zapping biologicals (viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites), transmuting toxins and neutralizing harmful EMFs (electro-magnetic frequencies).
… The Caudate Nucleus behaves like an antenna that can receive and transmit frequencies. It is a most useful instrument for telepathically contacting the worlds of cosmic knowledge and celestial academies. It also has the ability to act as the microphone and speaker for the Higher Self (this manifests as a loving, wise voice in your head that is distinct from your own thoughts).
I don't know much about Lilyandbeyond, but apparently they help unlock these supranormal abilities. (I hope I have a lot of mysteries locked away in my caudate nucleus. Telepathy! Teleportation! Bilocation! Well, maybe not bilocation, because that sounds a bit fragmenting.) But describing the caudate nucleus' role as "the microphone and speaker for the Higher Self [which] manifests as a loving, wise voice in your head" sounds just like what a monk or missionary might call the holy spirit/ghost.
Interestingly, if I listen for it, at times I can hear that same microphone and speaker in my head while playing basketball -- run a loop around the side, set a screen, shoot, pass and screen away. (Or maybe that's the voice of Rocky, my old basketball coach, still echoing in my head.)
Regardless, language fascinates me. When I stub my toe and swear like a sailor (and we all do it -- don't deny it!) that language has some effect on other parts of our brain. Language summons the power to release endorphines, which make me feel good despite my throbbing toe, or despite the guy who cuts me off on the road. How is it that self-induced speech acts affect my brain? Am I my own drug supplier? Spells, prayer, coronations, oaths -- these are all acts of speech that have interesting transformative effects on the world around and inside us.
I still have many unanswered questions. I've only just peeked inside the caudate nucleus. Apparently there is much more, including a blending of religion with marketing brands. According to Jonathan Storment:
Neurologists have actually scanned the brains of religious people while they asked them to think of the times they've experienced God's activity in their life. Then they showed them pictures like stained glass, incense, or pictures of the cross, and discovered that the one area of the brain (the Caudate Nucleus) responded when those people felt close to God.
Then the neurologists tested some different people. And this time they didn't talk about religion, but showed these new people pictures of consumer goods that were connected to very popular brands.
And the same area of the brain lit up.
James Bryan Smith points out that that consumers who buy certain well-marketed items have something close to a religious experience. That's why we buy and consume and always on the lookout for ways to get more.
I never knew that brand marketing and religion were so aligned, but yeah, I can kind of see the connection. When you align with a brand, even your favorite help authoring tool or vendor, you feel a connection. You feel right and sometimes dogmatic or defensive about it. You champion it to the world around you and cling to it despite all attempts at rationality to make you see otherwise. The caudate nucleus is humming on full throttle in these situations.
Research about the brain gives us a glimpse of wonder about ourselves. The caudate nucleus is where everything interesting seems to originate: creativity, basketball flow, falling in love, trust, religious experience, automatic actions, supernatural abilities, voluntary movement, learning, memory, sleep, social behavior, telepathy, clairvoyance, teleportation, bilocation etc., brand alignment, language control, language alternatives, and more.
While I've been somewhat dismissive, I think there might be something to the practice of stopping, listening, and trying to hear the voice of the caudate nucleus speak as you write. Can you hear that part of your brain formulating the words as you type? Maybe connecting with it, learning to listen to this little section of our brain, pausing and listening inward while it formulates the words for the sentence, can be a tool for clear writing?
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.