Creative Writing and the Brain

brain imaging activity NIH 2
These pictures show magnetic imaging impressions of brain activity. These reflect responses to specific visual stimuli. On the left, the subject was looking at faces. On the right the subject was looking at houses. The MRI frames were provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Just about everyone agrees that writing is an essential skill.  Even the most frugal educators include at least some writing instruction in their curriculum.  What modern science is teaching us is that writing is not only a skill; it is also important in brain development.

Neurologists, with the aid of imaging technology, have been able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are activated during specific creative activity. This applies not only to writing, but also to music, drawing and even “brainstorming”, which is preparatory to creative work.

During  creative writing activity, the right and left hemispheres of the brain interact with each other.  Although creativity is considered to be  ‘right brain’ centered, it seems that to complete the creative act, the left brain has to kick in.  This phenomenon was observed not only during the writing phase, but also during the period preparatory to writing, when ‘brainstorming’ takes place.  Visualizing, imagining material to be written, precipitates  coordination of different parts of the brain.

A study from the University of Greifswald, Germany looked at brain function in experienced writers.  The individuals in this group had highly developed writing skills.  The brain images of the writers showed increased prefrontal and basal ganglia activation. Also noted in the images was an increased development in the right cuneus, which is involved in reading processes.

Another  study at the University of  Greifswald looked at the creative writing processes during various stages of the work.   The authors of the study noted changes  in brain activity as the work progressed.   In the planning, or brainstorming phase, “cognitive, linguistic, and creative brain functions mainly represented in a parieto-frontal-temporal network” were activated.  During the actual writing phase,  “motor and visual brain areas for handwriting and additionally, cognitive and linguistic areas” were activated.   The authors of the second Greifswald study were careful to distinguish between groups that engaged in creative writing  and those that merely copied material.  The verbal association and integration patterns evident in the creative writing group were not evident in the brain images of the copiers.

Traditionally, creative writing has been part of many school programs because basic writing skills are important and creative writing is considered to be a nice extra curricular activity.  Perhaps it is time to reexamine the importance placed on writing and other creative activities.  Science seems to show that brain development is enhanced by exposure to creative exercise, whether that exercise is in writing, music or art.  Each of these areas seems to activate different parts of the brain.   Educators–and that certainly includes parents–should consider the evidence and think about considering creative activity to be as essential as the established pillars of education: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

the three rs John_Chippendall_Montesquieu_Bellew
Master of one of the three Rs, John Chippendall Montesquieu Bellew. Here Mr. Bellew is giving a public reading. He enjoyed a reputation for being a great orator. Image derived from a cartoon, 1873. Copyright expired.
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