The Brain, The Block, The Bummed Writer

by Karina SilvaPhoto of Karina Silva

Karina is a psychology major with a biology minor from Winthrop, MA. Karina says that writer’s block has “always been an obstacle for me, especially whenever I have to write papers for classes.” She notes that this paper was one of the first that she felt passionate about writing, and she feels that “researching the neurology behind writer’s block” enabled her to “further appreciate the wonders of the brain” and “develop an interest in research surrounding neuroscience and psychology.” Karina is a Brazilian-American who speaks Portuguese as well as English. Her hobbies include drawing, and she notes that art helps her “describe any thoughts that I am unable to describe in either English or Portuguese.” Her art and writing have helped her take note of “how much I’ve learned and developed throughout my time at UMass Boston so far.”

Karina’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.

There is no doubt that writing can be frustrating. Writing a story is similar to a love-hate relationship. There is a time where you feel like blessing the pages you write with your creativity. The other times, you want to rip out pages because of the pure frustration coming from the mere lack of ideas. Writer’s block is seen as a vile disease, and many individuals suffer from it. You’re probably one of those people, and that’s why you’re reading this. Therefore, looking into some theories on how to cure writer’s block may help you come across a solution.

Understanding The Neuroscience Behind Writing
When developing a vaccine that fights against viral diseases, researchers look into the viruses themselves and examine how they impact our cells. While writer’s block isn’t a biological condition, there is some psychology that underlies the matter. So before reviewing some methods, knowing the reasoning behind writer’s block may be essential in the evaluation process.

Writing has been a human skill for centuries, but the physical ability to write is not the only way our brain is involved in writing. James Levy reviews Dr. Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, and he draws attention to an argument in which Flaherty makes about the development of writing: “ …human beings have been able to engage in verbal communication for an estimated 100,000 years or so […] On the other hand, we are not hardwired to write […] In evolutionary terms, a widely accepted theory posits that human beings acquired the ability to write only within the last 5,000 years or so” (2). Compared to speech production and comprehension, the human brain has only recently adapted the ability to write – hence the development of the frontal lobe and even part of our temporal lobe. The ability to speak and participate in communicating is due to the fact that we have specific regions in the brain called the Broca’s and Wernicke’s area. “The Broca’s area is involved in speech production while the Wernicke’s area functions in verbal comprehension.” (Guy-Evans) However, writing is considered to be a skill to our brain since it involves making judgements and organizing thoughts. Even though taking part in writing can activate a majority of the frontal lobe, it still requires practice, due to the fact that humans do not have a neurological predisposition towards writing.

Now, even though writing is a newly adapted skill, there are certain features of writing that are considered unique and can explain the sensations that we face during our writing process. Researchers from the University of Greifswald held an experimental study consisting of volunteers writing a continuation of a short story for two minutes. In those two minutes, Martin Lotze, who was one of the researchers, found brain activation in the occipital lobe and hippocampus for beginner writers. For expert writers exclusively, who practice writing frequently, they found activity in the speech areas (Zimmer). Zimmer explains that low activation levels in these brain areas may be the reasoning behind writer’s block.

In summary, there are certain areas of the brain that are activated when we write. The more we practice writing, the more we are able to become fluent and our brain can even draw connections to speech articulation and comprehension. When we undergo writer’s block, certain areas in our brains are not as activated as they should be while we are writing. Most, if not all, techniques and solutions may revolve around increasing levels of activation in the frontal and occipital lobes.

Joseph Jacotot’s “Everything is in Everything”
The “everything is in everything” theory by Joseph Jacotot, which Geoffrey Carter refers to in “Writer’s Block Just Happens to People,” states that “it is always easier to utilize what [learners] already [know]” (Carter 101). Jacotot’s theory states that by using real-life examples that relate that person or a specific background, learners are able to further comprehend what is being taught to them. In writing, and more specifically in literary analysis, you may see objects as emblems or even as a turning point. However, Carter states that “it might be useful to experiment with playing with names to get one’s writing process underway” (101). In order to generate ideas and facilitate writing, we should embrace the blank page, and observe the names of objects and how they relate to a storyline. These real-life examples can even include names, and by playing around with their names, they eventually inspire writing (101).

Geoffrey Carter’s take on the “everything is in everything” theory can slowly help the frontal lobe activate – as one is consciously naming objects and making judgements up until one relates them to the story being written. Due to the fact that we are relating whatever we brainstorm to concepts that we use daily, our ideas will be easier to remember. It’s similar to how mnemonics work.

The “everything is in everything” theory does not guarantee that someone would understand the extent to which their idea may be significant, or even contradictory, to their writing. Bartosz Czekala states that “Mnemonics don’t guarantee understanding. Learning with mnemonics lacks context” (Czekala). Similar to how mnemonics functions, working with the “everything is in everything” theory leads to the generation of ideas, but they are unable to provide any significance behind these ideas. For example, let’s say that I think of a flower and then relate it to a relationship I am writing about with the “everything is in everything” theory. With the “everything is in everything” theory, I can only make the comparison between the flower and the relationship. I can’t come up with an explanation as to why the relationship I am writing about is like a flower. Is it blossoming? Can it easily fall apart? Is the appearance of the relationship like a flower?

Overall, the “everything is in everything” theory relates to writing as it indirectly states that metaphorizing real life examples to our stories is a way of brainstorming. The process of comparing and contrasting objects to the story one is writing can help cure writer’s block, but only to an extent. This extent includes brain activation; however it does not include contributing to the significance of a text, which is a goal writers consider important but may be struggling with.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow Theory”
Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi explains that while we are doing an activity that we enjoy, such as writing, we enter a state called optimal experience. “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding” (Csikszentmihalyi 68). Csikszentmilhalyi’s definition of “optimal experience” is when we are able to concentrate on the activity and therefore, we gain experience from which we find to be rewarding. Certain skill sets that one may find beneficial may be different from what others think. When we usually write, especially based on an idea we are passionate about, we encounter the optimal experience even when it is for a short period of time.

The optimal experience in which Csikszentmilhalyi refers to is similar to the high concentration of neurons firing in the frontal lobes, releasing dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that allows us to feel motivation. “At the broadest level, dopamine facilitates psychological plasticity, a tendency to explore and engage flexibly with new things, in both behavior and thinking” (Kaufman and Gregorie). During the surge of dopamine, our abilities to make judgements are enhanced due to our neurons changing the network connections.

So, what does the flow theory suggest we do about writer’s block? When we face a writer’s block crisis, the chances of getting motivated are low. Rather than focusing on generating ideas, like the “everything is in everything” theory, flow theory is about regaining the willingness to write.

When you look up flow in the dictionary, it is defined to be the continuation of something. In flow theory, flow is the process of “[keeping] the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication” (Csikszentmihalyi 54). In simple terms, flow is the duration of an optimal experience. Through Csikszentmilhalyi’s flow theory, we can achieve flow through our body, mind and memory. We can use our bodies by participating in physical activities and discovering our body’s potential. By using our mind, we can hyperfocus on the stimuli that we endure daily and use them to describe the sensations we experience. Using our memory to achieve flow is similar to retrieving past experiences, including explicit knowledge. (Csikszentmihalyi 33). One may argue that the sensations we endure with our mind, memory, and body can be used to brainstorm ideas. In terms of the writing process, flow theory can be helpful due to the fact that we can easily explore ourselves and the associations we encounter daily.

Lev Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development”
If you’ve taken a psychology class, whether in high school or during college, you may have heard of the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development theory states that there are three circular regions, as which the middle one is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky 86). There is a criterion of skills that we are able to master because we have the knowledge required. However, we are unable to execute the skill because we don’t know which manner the knowledge should be applied in. By having another individual guide us, we will be able to master the skill and therefore know how to use the information that we know in order to demonstrate the skill.

Most times, you have the ideas for your writing, but you are unable to find the right method for expressing them. The “zone of proximal development theory” is related to writer’s block to the extent in which writers that are dealing with the condition require a peer to help them express their ideas on paper. More specifically, the writer should receive guidance from “[the] presence of someone with knowledge and skills beyond that of the learner” (McLeod). This is so that the writer will be able to find the most effective way to express their idea, without being strayed away from the story’s message. The zone of proximal development not only breaks away writer’s block but also allows for a writer to express their full potential due to the fact that they have external support and source for critiques.

The only limit of the zone of proximal development is that in practice, one may not always have a mentor to guide them and there is a chance, regardless of how experienced the mentor is, that the writer might be misled. Also, the theory requires one to have judgments developed as it revolves around placing these judgements in order rather than creating them. Therefore, it does not correlate with activation in the frontal lobe to a high extent like the “everything is in everything” and “flow theories.” Overall, the zone of proximal development focuses on the positive effects on collaboration as a solution to writer’s block.

So, is There an Effective Solution to Writer’s Block?
In simple terms, there is not an effective solution to writer’s block. Several theories that revolve around getting rid of writer’s block focus on very specific aspects. The loss of these particular features can be considered the symptoms of writer’s block. The “everything is in everything” theory focuses on regaining the ability to brainstorm while “flow theory” emphasizes on utilizing our bodies to gain motivation. The “zone of proximal development” discusses how we can use collaboration as a way to break out of writer’s block.

Though contrasting in various ways, most of these theories relate back to our brains as they participate in helping the frontal lobe activate. Both the “flow” and “everything is in everything” theories allow us “metaphorical thinking, which is at the root of all human artistic activity [and] is a complex function involving several regions of the brain. Some people are better at it than others because of their particular brain ‘wiring’” (Levy 3). Most of the judgments, if not all, that are involved with the “everything is in everything” and “flow theory” are versions of metaphorical thinking. With metaphorical thinking, these theories allow for frontal lobe activation and therefore the rewiring of neural networks that allow for advanced thinking. On the other hand, the “zone of proximal development” can allow for frontal lobe activation, but only indirectly. This is because one would already have judgments before collaboration. However, collaboration can allow for judgement revision and therefore also allow for neural networking. Just not to the extent in which “flow” and “everything is in everything” would allow.

Many writers and psychologists will theorize effective ways to cure writer’s block. There will always be limitations that come with these theories. The main takeaway that you should obtain is that certain techniques may be helpful for others but not for yourself. The “everything is in everything” theory may help you when you are dealing with brainstorming troubles. On the other hand, the “flow theory” can provide support on how to gain motivation. The “zone of proximal development” theory can allow others to help you along your writing journey. Whatever aspect of writer’s block you are dealing with, there is always a theory available. Our minds are advanced and require specific treatments for neural network reorganization. Do not be frustrated if something may not work as much as you hoped, instead try to gain insight from what you have learned.

Karina’s reflection written in class to accompany this essay is available at this link.

Works Cited
Carter, Geoffrey V. “Writer’s Block Just Happens To People.” Bad Ideas About Writing. West Virginia University, 2017.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row, 2009.

Czekala, Bartosz. “The Truth About Effectiveness and Usefulness of Mnemonics in Learning.” The Universe Of Memory, 28 May 2020.

Flaherty, Alice. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Guy-Evans, Olivia. “Wernicke’s Area Location and Function.” Simply Psychology. 2021.

Kaufman, Scott Barry and Carolyn Gregorie. “How to Cultivate Your Creativity [Book Excerpt].” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 Jan. 2016.

Levy, James. “A Neurologist Suggests Why Most People Can’t Write – A Review of the Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain.” Review of The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. 2004.

Mcleod, Saul. “The Zone of Proximal Development and Scaffolding.” Simply Psychology, 2019.

Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Edited by Michael Cole et al., Harvard University Press, 1978.

Zimmer, Carl. “This Is Your Brain on Writing.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 June 2014.