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Here’s a confession- I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about when I signed up for today’s post. I assumed that, as in the past, inspiration would come to me with time to spare.
I was wrong.
I wracked my brain. I read weeks’ worth of Science and Nature emails searching for something to spark my interest. I even reached out to my friends on Tumblr for ideas, figuring that such intelligent and chatty people would surely have something they wanted to know about the brain. Nothing.
So I decided to write about my inability to write.
Writer’s block, the bane of every creative person’s existence, can be simply defined as the uncomfortable inability to write (Huston 1998). While typically imagined as a problem afflicting professional authors, many people first encounter the panic and fear that can accompany writer’s block in school, while trying to finish a paper for a deadline despite the fact that the words simply will not come. But what can neuroscience tell us about this creative phenomenon? Is it simply a roadblock created by the author, or could there be a neurological explanation?
Story Creation and the Brain
Story creation is an area of creativity that could inform us about the possible brain regions involved in writer’s block. In one fMRI study, subjects were given three related or unrelated words to create a story with. They were instructed either to be creative or uncreative and given 22 seconds to create the story. There was an increased activation in the prefrontal cortex in the “be creative” conditions in comparison to the “be uncreative” conditions (Howard-Jones et. al, 2005). This parallels with a 2004 review by Dr. Raymond A Mar that looked at studies of narrative comprehension and production. Both production and creation are associated with activation in the prefrontal cortex, particularly the medial and right lateral areas. Other areas jointly involved in story production and creation are the temporoparietal region and the posterior cingulate cortex.
Frontal lobe disorders
Given research implicating the frontal lobe in story creation, writer’s block could involve a temporary inactivation of this area. To test this theory, we can compare the symptoms of writer’s block to those in disorders of the frontal lobe. For example, lesions to Broca’s area (located on the inferior frontal gyrus), produce several deficits that resemble the problems experienced by those with writer’s block. Patients with either condition experience decreased linguistic output (although, in Broca’s aphasia this extends to spoken as well as written language), a heightened awareness of their deficit and a subsequent increase in depression and anxiety (Flaherty 2005).
Writer’s block also bears some similarities to the symptoms of anxiety, particularly performance anxiety. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex has been an area of particular interest in the study of anxiety, and studies have have shown increased activity of the vmPFC in patients with PTSD and anticipatory anxiety (Schulz and Koenigs 2012). Writer’s block, especially in severe cases, can even cause anxiety. For these people, anti-anxiety medication may be helpful in low doses.
Depression is also a disorder analogous to writer’s block, as well as occurring along with it in some cases (depression occurs eight to ten times more frequently in writers as in the general population. Sufferers of both conditions experience decreased interest in the projects that they once enjoyed, increased self-criticism, decreased energy and creativity and difficulty concentrating (Flaherty 2004). Decreased frontal activation is associated with depression, and treatment has been shown to correlate with a normalization of frontal lobe function (Flaherty 2005). Especially in patients suffering from both depression and writer’s block, low doses of medication may again be helpful.
Is it all in your head?*
There have been no major scientific studies of writer’s block, although several have taken behavioral approaches to helping scientists and medical writers push through the block successfully. Writer’s block is difficult to characterize, as it is an extremely subjective experience. However, knowing some of the neurological processes underlying the creative mind and which brain areas are affected during writer’s block may help us find some solutions. While some writers suffering from block could be helped with medication (particularly when they are also experiencing anxiety), behavioral solutions may actually be more helpful. Here are a few suggestions for things to try out next time you just can’t get the words on paper (adapted from Huston 1998):
1. Break up the work into smaller pieces. Write each step onto a checklist and check them off as you complete them. Seeing your progress in front of you may ease your mind and any panic you may be feeling.
2. Work out of sequence. If one part of your paper or novel is giving you a hard time, move on to another.
3. Schedule breaks. Go for a walk, read a book, watch a YouTube video. But make sure there’s a scheduled end point because…
4. Try not to procrastinate.** It will only increase the level of anxiety you feel as the deadline draws nearer.
5. Don’t beat yourself up. Almost every writer, whether scientist or author, has struggled with writer’s block at some point. They were able to work through it and so can you!
*Pun 100% intended
**Things I did to procrastinate writing this post: watched The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, sorted our lab members into Hogwarts houses, listened to the new Radiolab episodes, watched The Return of the King: Extended Edition, read five romance novels, and played way, way too much Candy Crush.
A. W. Flaherty; The Midnight Disease. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2004
A. W. Flaherty (2005); Frontotemporal and Dopaminergic Control of Idea Generation and Creative Drive, The Journal of Comparative Neurology 493:147-153
P.A. Howard-Jones, et. al. (2005); Semantic divergence and creative story generation: An fMRI investigation, Cognitive Brain Research 25(1):240-250
P. Huston (1998); Resolving Writer’s Block, Canadian Family Physician 44:(92-97)
R.A. Mar (2004); The neuropsychology of narrative: story comprehension, story production and their interrelation, Neuropsychologia 42(10):1414-1434
B Meyers-Schulz and M Koenigs (2012), Functional anatomy of ventromedial prefrontal cortex: implications for mood and anxiety disorders, Molecular Psychiatry 17(132-141)