I think I might have killed my muse. At the very least, she’s severely wounded. Marred, even. *grin* With all the writing I’ve done in 2016 I’ve pushed her to the max. She’s in dire need of saline and a cocktail of meds via intravenous drip. STAT. I’ll get into how I can repair the damage later in the post. For now, let’s define the word “muse.”
A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. (dictionary.com)
How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page, but what happens inside the brain when we call upon our muse? The answer may surprise you.
Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results were incredible.
Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey? I didn’t either. Until today.
First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. Several mirrors positioned just so let them see what they were writing.
Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute and write for two.
The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During the brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye. During the writing process, other regions activated as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?
Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — activated too. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.
The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.
What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer?
Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Also with the first few lines written for them.
In doctor mumbo-jumbo, Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows…
During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.
High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading. You can read the full report here.
Let’s break it down in terms more easily understood.
The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.
“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”
More differences were discovered too.
Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus — responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice — also became active. Whereas in the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill, we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.
Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction, or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating guest post that touched on this difference in more depth, entitled What Type of Writer Are You?
How to Heal Your Muse
An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourself with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed.
What’s the best way to summon creativity?
Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day. Take the time to celebrate your achievements before jumping into another project. I learned this the hard way.
After signing my contract for CLEAVED, I didn’t allow myself any time off, not even one full day. That was a mistake. I let my workload dictate my creative process, and I felt like I was working all day but not accomplishing anything. So this morning at 4:30 a.m., a time usually reserved for writing, I read a novella that I’d been dying to read. And you know what? My muse thanked me for it. Here’s something else I learned. Enjoy the holiday season with your family and friends. If you’re not “feeling it” don’t force your creativity (I’m talking more to myself than you). The work will suffer. Stop piling on the pressure and relax (again, that was more for me).
I, for one, will be blocking out the world to catch up on my reading. I want nothing more than to get lost in your world. Already I hear the whisper of my muse, “Write me.”