Your Brain on Writing

Writing for Children Blog | craft | writing for children and teens | writing for magazines
August 17, 2017


For me, being a writer is more than something I do.

It’s something I am.

A writer is always a writer, whether sitting before a computer or picking up a pen and a notebook, or merely walking through the grocery store. A writer is always processing life as a writer. It never stops. And that act of looking, planning, and writing changes you. In fact, research by neuroscientists suggests that writing has an effect on your brain that changes you. More than that, it changes your audience.
Being a professional writer affects the way your brain functions. A study by German researchers led by Martin Lotze, observed the brain activity of people writing stories. According to the study, a network of brain regions work together to create fiction, but this activity changes between novice writers and those who have spent a long time writing. Lotze says the brain activity of professional writers was similar in some way to the brains of other people skilled in complex action like musicians or athletes. So I may have writer butt, but I have star athlete brains!
The unique brain activity began before the "writer" actually began writing. The visual centers of the brain lit up as people planned stories. The planners were seeing the stories in their heads. Those of us who write know how that feels, but now science backs it up. But the study showed another interesting thing. The most experienced writers also showed activity in speech centers as they planned. They not only "saw" their stories, they "narrated" them in their heads with words. The more you write, the more this "narration" becomes simply part of what you do. After writing on a daily basis for many years, I can honestly say I narrate my life in my head all the time.
Additionally, research has found other areas of the brain can be stimulated depending upon the contents of the story you're telling. If you are planning and writing a story with clearly imagined action, the motor cortex of your brain lights up. If the story includes sensory detail, your brain will register a sensory response. And if you’ve done the job well, this response is then passed on to the reader. In a well-written story, the reader will also experience activity in sensory and motor areas of the brain, because this thing that you’ve created using nothing but words is actually bringing the readers into the moment and making them live it through imagination. But your description of action and sensory detail must be evocative for this to happen. Research shows that common figures of speech will not produce the effect. That means if you want the reader to feel the smoothness of a surface in your story, don't choose the first analogy that comes to mind (as that will often be the cliché). Instead offer something unusual and trigger that brain response that makes the story more brain stimulating for the reader.
Some researchers have even argued that fiction helps us survive and thrive even into old age. According to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, fiction can help us prepare for problems we might face and allows us to develop strategies for dealing with those problems, thus giving us survival techniques. And neuroscience research is beginning to suggest that intellectual activity is important for keeping a healthy brain as we age. One of the most frequent issues of the aging brain is difficulty in retrieving words and names, but time spent writing is all about words and retrieving them using multiple parts of the brain. 

Researchers have also suggested that writing by hand offers some benefits over doing all your writing with the computer, especially for those looking to keep a sharp mind as we age. The combination of motor-skills, memory, and slower pace that handwriting brings to the experience can also help break writer's block, simply by pulling yourself away from the unblinking eye of the computer.
So writing a lot is the kind of stimulating brain activity that may help you stay sharp in the years ahead, and the more you do it, the more parts of your brain are activated. And you're not only doing a favor for your own brain, you're doing it for the brains of your readers.

You're like a brain trainer!

Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.


Alvaro Harman
August 6, 2020

An excellent post, congratulations !!

Kris Morris
July 28, 2020

Wow, so glad I happened upon this site, and this article in particular! It's been driving me crazy lately that I can't seem to get a good night's sleep because I narrate my dreams. And I dream a lot ... or remember a lot of them. Has anyone else experienced this? I still consider myself a novice writer, though I'm working on my tenth book. I've not had any formal creative writing education, and I'm a self-published writer, so I feel a bit of a fraud. In other words, I don't consider myself to be a "professional" writer. But I spend the greater portion of my waking hours writing, so it would stand to reason that the narration of my dreams would be a continuation of that process. I'd be very interested to know if there are any other writers out there who experience this phenomenon when they dream. Thank you, Jan Fields, for this fascinating article!

aregbebesola femi
September 25, 2019

one of the issue of written for people like me is time u need help on developing my brain i will like to be a good writer.

C Browne
July 16, 2019

The brain is a sensitive organ, it is stressed by negativity, so what you are writing about can also affect the health of your brain. Thinking causes the neuronal activities to increase and network formation, are your networks which are real brain estates toxic, ensuring a constant flow of stressful dangerous chemicals that slowly destroys the brain cells as well as the cells in the rest of the body. You need to know the history , including the mental state of the writers and their expectations. Your brain responds to your life expectations and your beliefs. Some people expect not to live long, some desire not to live long. Your body will follow what you believe including how long you expect or desire to live. So there are many factors to consider. Healthy writing, can only be good.

steve Hayes
June 16, 2019

Thanks for your interesting and informative article, Jan. I sold my first screenplay that was produced in 1956 -'57, worked for years in television and at eighty nine I'm still writing four hours every day. I rise at 3am, go to the gym for an hour and a half, return home, shower, eat breakfast and start writing. I write novels now. Mostly westerns and murder mysteries. They can all be bought either at Amazon or on Kindle. I also occasionally write non-fiction. Anyway, I have no intention of slowing down and hope to sell a book on my hundredth birthday. Again, good article. Keep writing, pal. Hugs, Steve Hayes

Richard Cassidy
May 7, 2019

An interesting and insightful article. However on the point that writing helps surviving the ageing process etc. how to account for the early deaths (age 44) of DH Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson on and on. Sure some make it to old age. W. Somerset Maugham and others. Maugham admitted (with the usual writer's bloated hyperbole) that after 4 hours of writing he was exhausted, wrung out, brain dead. Michael Crichton, while being administered chemotherapy for his lymphoma maintained his workaholic writing schedule and died of a brain tumour. Did overwork kill him? The question is can writing to excess cause brain tumours? Georgia Blain is another that comes to mind. Her frantic, frenetic schedule killed her of brain tumour at 53.

April 28, 2019

Actual scientific research to back up not using clichés in your writing. They don't allow your reader to feel the story...literally, they don't stimulate their brain. Awesome.

Leah Proctor
March 7, 2019

The brains a confusing thing and it is really interesting if you ask me. I'm doing a health and social course in school and it asks me this question and I just don't now how to answer it. I was actually hoping you guys can help me. The question is how does writing stories like Michael Morpurgo intellectually effect his brain? I will be really happy if you could answer this question for me thank you in advance.

Barbara Kass
February 19, 2019

I narrate my life in my head all the time. At least now I know what's wrong with me and explains all the writing I do.

Billy Thomas
February 7, 2019

Resonated deeply. Yesterday I told my daughter, "I've always been a writer." Loved the info on the type of writing that touches our audience. Great article. Thank you.

Toni P. Ross
September 12, 2017

"The mind is a terrible thing to wast" Grest article Jan, loved it!

Tina Cho
August 19, 2017

Great article, Jan! I like brain research stuff.

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