Writing and Its Impact on Brain Development and Behavior

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

By Simerjeet Mudhar and Alfred Yu as part of the collaboration with United Under Arts

Writing has served as a form of expression and storytelling through a great part of history. Whether it be from sending a meticulously crafted email or bringing to page the perfect fantasy world you have been building in your head for the past five days, we’ve all been writers at one point or another. Studies now suggest that the art of forming thoughts into words helps develop specific parts of the brain and provides a therapeutic way where those struggling with certain diseases can ease their symptoms.

German neurologist Martin Lotze conducted an experiment regarding the differences in activity of specific regions in the brain between amateur and professional writers. Lotze’s experiment consisted of having both types of writers under a fMRI scanner continuing a story where a few lines were already given. He set up mirrors around the writing desk for increased visibility in the scanner. Once the experimentation commenced and the brainstorming period of time started, the occipital lobe of the novice writers was especially active, which is indicative of visualization. Once actual writing commenced, the hippocampus and regions in the front of the brain became more active, most likely due to the consolidation of factual information and the planning of characters and plot lines. However, one area of the brain, the caudate nucleus, which is responsible for motor function, direction of repetitive actions, and goal-setting behavior (though this particular function hasn’t been well-documented in research), remained inactive in novice writers. In the brains of professional writers, these areas of the brain as well as the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas of the brain, which are responsible for speech production and speech comprehension respectively, were more active. This suggests that the professional writers were more language oriented, as they did not use the occipital lobe for visualization during brainstorming periods as the novice writers did. Ultimately, Lotze’s study concluded that novice writers rely heavily on visual regions of the brain, while more experienced writers had greater activations in the medial prefrontal cortex (involved in both memory and decision making) and the caudate nucleus.

Using writing as an emotional outlet can have many psychological benefits as well. A study on the effects of expressive writing about coping of job loss observed the emotional responses of a group of engineers who had recently lost their jobs. Results showed that those who continuously wrote down their feelings in journals had less negative feelings towards their previous employer, and in general had more success in finding a new job. Furthermore, research has shown that writing does have a positive effect on those who have experienced traumatic or negative experiences. When one writes about their negative experiences, two parts of the brain activate, the dorsal striatum and the mid-cingulate cortex (MCC). The dorsal striatum contains the caudate nucleus and activity of this particular region of the brain leads to increased memory competency over time. The MCC is the part of the brain responsible for the processing of negative emotion. As subjects kept writing consistently, there was an eventual decline in MCC activity. The study concluded that expressive writing was able to help people better process negative thoughts accumulated over time as well as during drastic situations. This research shows that writing could be an effective therapy for disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and mental health conditions.

Writing has a plethora of benefits, most of which go unnoticed by society, and can help alleviate symptoms of certain disorders and maintain emotional and mental wellbeing.