This is Your Brain on Writing

When we lived in our first home in Burlington, Vermont, I liked to prepare to write with a quiet walk by Lake Champlain. With repetition, the routine became a ritual. And like any ritual in the hands of a True Believer, when it worked, it worked like magic. As I walked, I carefully set aside extraneous thoughts, and concentrated instead on the working of my legs, the beat of my breath, the smells of the season, the sound of the wind, the colors of the lake and the sky. By the time I’d reached the second overlook and turned back towards home, some unbidden insight into my writing would be percolating up from my subconscious. It might be solution to a structural snafu, a turn of phrase that tickled my ear, or a usable detail from some long-forgotten event.

What made my ritual effective? The calm and the quiet certainly helped, and my faith that it would work probably had a placebo effect. And I suspect that the physical movement of my body played a role, as well. In a sense, what I was doing on those walks was, um, jogging my memory.

Funny phrase, right? As in, funny weird? Makes it seem like past experiences are etched in the vinyl surface of our minds, and the stylus that brings them to life has gotten snagged on a scratch and needs a little nudge in the tone arm. Or substitute your own analogy, in which recollections are posited as physical entities, and mechanical manipulation brings them in focus. Wacky idea? Maybe not no much.

Think of all the cool work psychologists are doing with MRIs, mapping the geography of thoughts. Look at the various studies connecting the meaty hardware of the brain and the amorphous software of the mind. (The jury seems to be out on whether gym time helps older folks stave off forgetfulness, but young adults who work up a sweat before taking memory-related tests do better than their couch-potato peers.)

Consider the amygdala. In that bitty chunk of brain matter, emotional states get linked to sensory stimuli. That time I got sick in Mexico, and for years afterwards, couldn’t even hear the word enchilada without heaving? That’s the amygdala. The Iraq War vet who panics at the sound of a backfiring VW? Yup.

I know a woman in Colorado who treats people suffering from post-traumatic stress. In one of her techniques, she has the client deliberately remember the big scary thing that happened, and while the memory is vivid, she makes them move their eyes back and forth, back and forth, really quickly. The idea is that when the big scary thing went down in the first place, the brain was too overwhelmed to properly process what was happening. The impression got stuck in the brain’s short-term parking lot, where it continues to feel like it happened just yesterday. My friend’s approach, called EMDR, somehow shakes the memory loose, so it can move into long-term parking and recede into the past, where it belongs.

So maybe it’s a stretch to try to compare that with I’m doing when I walked my way into writing. But I like to think that my ritual wasn’t random. True Believer that I am, I like to imagine that when I undertake the audacious act of creation, all the mysterious, interlocking systems that make me me – brain, mind, muscle, memory – are secretly conspiring to make it happen.

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One Response to “This is Your Brain on Writing”

  1. Valerie Horowitz Says:

    A “conspiracy” in a good way–

    Nice piece, Ruth! I like the phrase “walked my way into writing.”

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