Muse: How Creativity Effects the Brain

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.

Novice Writers

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.

Muse

Hippocampus in red.

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.Muse: How Creativity Effects the Brain

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

Muse: How Creativity Effects the BrainAn 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.”

 

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is an award-winning, bestselling, multi-published author in numerous anthologies and her forensics articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly. In addition to her popular crime resource blog, Sue co-hosts the radio show "Partners In Crime" on Writestream Radio Network every third Tuesday of the month from 1 - 3 p.m. EDT/EST (see sidebar for details). She's also the communications manager for the Serial Killer Project and Forensic Science, and founder of #ACrimeChat on Twitter. 2017 Award-winner of Feedspot's Top 50 Crime Blogs (Murder Blog sits at #6), contact Sue for speaking engagements, book signings, reading, and events.

60 Comments

  1. Wow, very cool info, Sue. I agree that trying to force creativity doesn’t always work. I wonder how TV writers do it when they are under the gun constantly to put something on a blank page. It can’t always be brilliant, but when you turn on the TV something has to be there.

    • Thanks, Julie. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. If I’m not mistaken, TV writers work in teams. If one writer’s muse is spent, the others must lend a helping hand. I know for me, even telling my husband about a sticky plot area always seems to illuminate the answer. I’m guessing TV writers’ brainstorming sessions work similarly.

  2. Thanks for sharing such wonderful information. Very useful for me

  3. Fabulous post! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Reading a book, listening to music, and getting involved with imagining a world outside of our own can all stimulate creativity, as you share. There is a wealth of ways to explore using creativity, which is really just getting back to basics in terms of entertainment and fun.

  5. Memory that is stored from before speech is a subject i am interested in Sue and Margot. It often leads into forbidden topics that people get tied up into but are afraid to address. The subject of child abuse from infancy to adulthood is a common subject but it is also one that people do not want to get involved with. Nevertheless I have written about it and am interested in how the brain of abused persons differ from those who have not been hurt in such a way. I keep doing research and will never stop. I have an ocean of research and things from new novels about it. Best to all I cannot see what I am typing but best to you all.

  6. Good advice. I apply the same techniques to music compositions as well.

    • You make an excellent point, Patrick. In my research I found numerous similarities between writing and composing. Also, some fascinating info. on what happens to our brain when we listen to music…how it triggers areas of the brain used for storing memories, tastes, smells; it even releases a surge of dopamine into our system. Amazing, but not all that surprising. Anyone who’s ever had a song fill them with fond memories from the past has experienced this. You’re creating magic, Patrick. The ability to compose is a special gift.

  7. Interesting stuff Sue. Enjoy your reading.
    Guy Portman recently posted…Bizarre Books VIMy Profile

    • Thank you, Guy. I’m so glad you enjoyed the science behind writing as much as I did. Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season filled with love, laughter, and great food.

  8. This is interesting. It makes so much sense for us to take a break from a continuous period of writing if nothing more than to recharge our brain. Thanks for sharing another a great post.

    • Thank you, Jet! It works, too. Within the short span I took for myself an amazing idea slapped me across the face with the force of a jilted lover, and now, I return to the manuscript excited, rejuvenated, and thankful for this new direction. Sometimes the act of giving ourselves permission to step away, deadline or no deadline, works wonders. This post was my permission to myself, and it worked amazingly well. It’s also your permission if you need it. Happy holidays!

  9. The study of seasoned authors operates on the presumption that inspiration takes place at the moment of writing. For the novice writers, confronted with a prompt, it did. They’d never contemplated storytelling or plotting a narrative. For a seasoned writer the process never ends. At the back of our minds, even when we’re amusing ourselves, our brains are looking for cues, pieces of a storyline, new storylines. When we sit down to write, even when confronted with a prompt, or being asked to sit through a brainstorming session, we’ve already plowed the fields and, in many ways, are simply looking for the crops that are in season and ready to harvest.

    As a consequence, our brains would register differently on the scanner. Not because we’ve lost the muse, but because we’re in contact with her on a daily basis.

  10. I love anything that takes a look at how we function creatively. This was a great post and a good reminder that like anything, we need to recharge our creative juices. Rather than constantly taxing them to meet deadlines (which I’ve been guilty of the last two years) we also need to give them room to romp and play.

    I love to read. It’s how I wind down 98% of my evenings. During the month of November I spent some of those evenings cramming for a contract deadline rather than my usual means of burying my nose in a book. I missed that nightly routine. Now that I’m back to again, I can already feel my muse flexing muscles for my next story. 🙂
    Mae Clair recently posted…#FridayBookShare @ShelleyWilson72 – The Last Days of Night by Graham MooreMy Profile

    • So do I, Mae. The creative mind is a fascinating muscle, and like all muscles in our body, it too needs to relax in between exercise. I’m so guilty of cramming 11 hour days/7 days a week at my desk with no breaks. I’ve been doing it for almost four years (with the exception of this past summer when I went to the lake a few times). Now that I’ve achieved some of my goals, it’s time to take some time for me. The problem is, I can’t take too much time or I’ll miss my two looming deadlines (one is set in stone, the other might have some wiggle room, if I need it). Happy reading, my friend. 🙂

      • 11 hours a day/7 days a week is a crazy schedule, Sue! I think I read once that Stephen King only does 8 hours like a regular job (taking one day off a year for Christmas). I hope you get a lot of wiggle room in that last deadline!
        Mae Clair recently posted…#FridayBookShare @ShelleyWilson72 – The Last Days of Night by Graham MooreMy Profile

        • I don’t even remember how it got this insane, Mae. Little by little I started earlier and earlier and worked later and later, and before I knew it, I was on this crazy schedule. Eight hours a day sounds heavenly. If it’s good enough for King, it’s good enough for me. 🙂 Wouldn’t you know it, my research yesterday led me to an incredible find — and by incredible, I mean deliciously evil. I’ll need that wiggle room now, because I’ve gotta run with this. Time to tear apart my manuscript and rebuild. So much for ignoring Ms. Muse.

  11. Terrific article, Sue. Like you, I’ve been working without a break, and the further I got behind, the more I stayed at my desk. The anxiety attacks grew in frequency. What should have been an enjoyable project turned into a living nightmare. But now that it’s done, I’m going to take a “sabbatical” for at least several weeks, if not months, to reset and rethink how I’m working. Very timely article for me.

    • I can relate, Meg. Boy, can I. I took on way too many projects in 2016, on top of writing two sequels and committing to a trilogy of short stories. Like you, it got to the point that I dreaded opening the manuscript. I’ve got less than 20K words to finish the second sequel, but the work will suffer if I force myself to continue without a break. The end product must be our first priority, right? I’ll tell ya, since I made the decision to take some time for me, I got a fantastic idea for the 2nd story in the trilogy collection. I’m still going to ignore Ms. Muse for a few more days, though, because today, WordPress decided to send an automatic update, which crashed my site, deleted all my plugins and most of my images. Hmm… I wonder if Ms. Muse had a hand in it. Maybe she’s pissed off and wants revenge. 😉 Enjoy your time off!

  12. This is fascinating. So glad I signed up for your blog.

  13. Of course the Muse is a woman…Bob Dylan said it best
    he takes just like a woman, yes, she does

    She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does

    And she aches just like a woman

    But she breaks just like a little girl

  14. Fascinating article, Sue! I spent 40+ years working as an advertising copywriter, creative director and producer — which boiled down to being creative (and funny) on command. That discipline helped form the voice in which I write now — fast-paced comedies about crime, murder, life in L.A., sex and the entertainment industry — and once I get going on a new work, the writing flows rapidly. As I write, I DO hear the text in my head as a voice-over. If anything, I find I sometimes have trouble waiting for my muse to suggest a new theme/story line for my next work. But, I suspect a lot of that is from being overused — I spent an inordinate amount of time posting about our recent presidential elections and some of the idiots. fools and wanna-be demagogues battling it out for a front seat in the clown car. But, I also know that I will return to my writing. I have too much fun with it not to. Thanks again.

    • Thanks, Jeff! I, too, hear the inner voice, rather than seeing the movie played out. Perhaps the difference between novice and professional writers lies in finding our writer’s voice. Once we find it, it’s impossible not to hear it when we write. Like you, I love writing. I’ll never stop, but pressing the pause button here and there is good for the soul.

  15. A few years ago I wrote a book that would probably be considered historical fiction. It was based on my great grandfather and the stories my dad told me. I didn’t have enough of the stories to make a book, so I had a great deal of research to do about the times. Every time I got stuck on something, I’d tell Cal (my great grandfather) that he had to help me out. After a little time away from it, the answers always came. It seemed to take me a long time to finish that book, but it was worth it. Some people have said it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Too bad I can’t seem to get the general public interested in it! Anyway, I guess Cal was my muse for that one. I’ve had ideas come to me in the strangest places. A rape/murder scene for one of my thrillers came to me in the shower one morning. I find if I try too hard, I have a lot more difficulty. I don’t know if that’s the muse taking a holiday, but when the creativity comes, I write like wildfire. Then the muse takes another vacation and I’m stuck again. Wish I could figure out how to keep the little bugger around longer.

    • Your book sounds fascinating, Janet! I agree. If we try too hard to force creativity, we can wind up worse off than when we started. Better to take a walk, or take a shower/bath, to clear the mind. The answer always reveals itself when we least expect it. Then come back and write like your soul’s on fire! Love that feeling!!!

  16. My Muse is a hot guy with an Australian accent who gets on my ass whenever I slack off too much. In my world, muse means anything that inspires, which includes stuff like nature, music, or art. The research is very interesting, especially the difference between novice and more practiced writers.

    And yes, a break to give the brain a rest is helpful, but I sometimes have a problem resting too much. Which is when my Muse shows up in his Indiana Jones getup complete with bullwhip to encourage me to get back to writing 😀 Speaking of, here he comes. Gotta go!

  17. My muse has been off playing pokemon. She’s coming back after Christmas with a vengeance.

  18. This post fascinates me. The biology/chemistry/physiology behind our work/art is so compelling. I don’t know if Dr. Pinker is right about fiction vs. nonfiction writers, but this gave me a lot to consider. As did your comment regarding taking a break rather than letting deadlines dictate our pace. Sometimes we can’t help it (a deadline is a deadline, after all), but reading for pleasure is a fantastic way to rejuvenate the muse.

    Great post, Sue.

    • Thanks, Staci! The science behind the muse fascinates me too. Yes, a deadline is a deadline. That’s what I believed, too, till I researched how the muse works. Too many deadlines and too much pressure can cripple creativity. Better to take a short, rejuvenating break than to just put words on paper. After all, they need to be the right words. 😉 Then come back fresh and kill it…let the magic flow from our fingertips, spill our emotions onto the page, and do it in less time than if we slapped a Band-Aid on our muse and forged ahead.

      You know what got me thinking about this? Awhile back, a local author was killed, and the reporter said something like, “Friends said she spent a lot of time at home. Shame the one day she leaves the house, she loses her life.” At the time I didn’t know (I was too busy writing). The only reason it came up now was because Bob was watching something he’d taped on the DVR, and of course, he replayed the clip several times to drill home the message. LOL Message received!

  19. Good stuff, Sue. I think taking a break from time to time is the most productive thing a writer can do. Whether it’s going for a walk or standing in the shower, there’s no doubt once you’ve bonded with your muse and then ignore him, he’ll come looking for you and show up at the darndest times – right out of nowhere.

    Notice how I used masculine for my muse. I know traditional muses are women but mine’s a dude. He can be an ignorant prick with a foul mouth but, when he’s on duty, man – things get done.

    I love this description of a muse from “On Writing” that I stole from King. (The hippopotamus in my brain is resting right now because I’m copying content – not creating.)

    “… there is a muse but he’s not going to flutter down to your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust on your keyboard. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level and once you get down there, you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor while the muse sits and smokes cigars, admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that’ll change your life…”

  20. Fascinating piece, Sue.
    As is so often the case with scientific studies, basically what it shows is that someone needs to do more research!
    With so many different branches even within the creative writing field, let alone all writing forms, the scope is so vast, and the huge sample of writers you’d need to get any really meaningful results, I doubt it will ever be fully investigated, but the implications of even such a small study are thought provoking.

    • You’re so right, Deborah. Just on Google+ alone there are 43K members of the writing community. If he were to take all of us, then he might be on to something. Nonetheless, I found it fascinating that scientists even wanted to study our brains.

      Wishing you a wonderful holiday season!

  21. I understand completely. My Muse got out of shape during the summer. I did family and summer things, and did not take time to indulge myself in a bit of fiction. Even the reading I did was for work related projects. Then I moved into promotion mode. This took up another two months. Now that I’m easing into writing again, it’s all fresh and new.

    • Exactly, Craig. I did the same thing over the summer. Come the end of August/early Sept., I piled on the work. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Nonetheless, I’m really looking forward to more reading time.

      • I done so many beta reads, and advance reads this year. In 2017, I need to pick a couple of titles by my favorite mainstream authors and just enjoy a good story. BTW, I took on another beta project this week. I feel like I’m just talking the talk.
        CS Boyack recently posted…Trying to get things doneMy Profile

        • Ugh! I have too. Not that I don’t enjoy ARCs. I really do. But I wanted to read something that I’ve been dying to read, a novella by a mainstream author that I bought last summer. And I loved every second of it. It was so nice to just kick back and read for fun, rather than for the radio show or to write a review. You know what I’m saying. Maybe you should do the same. 🙂

  22. A different kind of piece from ya sis. I could feel the muse. Thank you for creating and sharing it. ?

  23. This is really interesting, Sue. One of the things I think is most fascinating is that we know so little about the brain. We’re always learning more, but there’s still so much we don’t know. I find it amazing that every time we think we know something, we see how little we really do know.

    • So true, Margot. The brain is akin to the ocean in that respect. We haven’t even begun to understand what lurks deep in the water. Both fields of study fascinating me. I guess you could say I have a love for the unknown.

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