The mind on writing

Early fMRI studies suggest expertise has a physical correlate

The results are preliminary and certainly (as has been remarked) inconclusive, but a recent functional MRI (fMRI) study suggests that novice and experienced writers approach writing — the writing of fiction at any rate — very differently. It seems that novices think in pictures, while experienced writers think in words. It may be that the novices are transcribing into words the scenes they’re envisioning, while the experienced writers are instead constructing an internal narrative, shaping the words directly for the page, directly for the ear, building the scene up from the words, not breaking it down into the words. Where the novices transcribe, the experts inhabit.

I don’t think we should be at all surprised to find this distinction confirmed by further study. Skilled laborers of any sort always know their materials well, far better than do the inexperienced, the occasional practitioners. And the materials of a writer are words.

People for whom writing is in the blood, people who as children read early and voraciously, people whose orientation from the beginning was words, words, words — maybe they’re wired a little differently. Maybe they pay attention to the world a little differently, experience it differently. Maybe the whisper of words reaches down into their very being, weaving its way around the soul, breathing into the deepest marrow of the self, leaving them forever marked, forever possessed of the fever and the need to pass it along, propelling those inner-seen worlds brightly into existence.

That would align with the Romantic notion of creation: that it’s a fire burning from within. Divine inspiration. A bewitchment, a calling, an inescapable mandate. One that brings with it, too, special insights. The Artist with a capital “A.”

And yet there’s deliberate, studied skill involved as well. As a writer, you must be able to take a sentence, a passage, an entire piece, apart and know its parts, know what makes it work, know where it goes wrong. As a sculptor of words, you have to know when the shaping has been successful and when not, and why in either case this is so. This is what the years of study are all about. And the practice, the practice that sinks those principles deep, deep in the bone. There are various theories about the process of mastery, but the end result is knowing very, but very well how to work with the language as with a set of tools. It’s about diction, it’s about grammar, it’s about syntax. And it can seem sometimes to be about alchemy as well. Something happens when the mind, the deepest, most inmost recesses of the mind, and the fingers work in concert, seemingly in direct communication, with barely the intervention of conscious thought. The fingers work their magic, weaving and reweaving, unpicking and revising, until the sentences spring crisp and clear from the jumbled heap of sound and sense.

As a sculptor of words, you have to know when the shaping has been successful and when not, and why in either case this is so.

This would align more closely with the Neoclassical model of creation: that it’s construction, built of expertise. An architecture of words and thought, a skill that can be learned. Perspiration, more so than inspiration. Hard work.

You might also see the two as flip sides of the same process. If the fire provides the motivation, the passion, the grit, it’s the study over long years that builds the mastery. The one feeds the other: passion fuels mastery; continued mastery further sparks passion.

. . .

This particular fMRI study cannot speak to motivation, but the results seem to support such a model of expertise. The brains of the experienced writers showed intense activity in an area associated with the mastery of complex skills through practice. This same area in the novice writers was largely silent: their work was conscious and effortful in a way that the work of the experienced writers was not. Work is effortful when we are still consciously rehearsing strategies, when we are still learning to perform a task. The more accomplished we become with a set of skills, the more those skills become a part of who we are — as conscious thought forges its way to unconscious performance. The experienced writers had so thoroughly mastered the skills inherent in the task of writing that they were largely working in an entirely different region of the brain. The neuronal correlates of expertise sprang into action.

The more accomplished we become with a set of skills, the more those skills become a part of who we are — as conscious thought forges its way to unconscious performance.

Further and more sophisticated studies would be needed to confirm this correlation and to explore it in greater depth. Current-day fMRI technology, alas, is limited. It is a window into the mind offering the equivalent of a grainy, low-definition picture of the activity within. The fMRI machine does not measure neuronal activity directly, but rather blood flow, a proxy for the activity that nerve cells are engaged in. Nor can it direct its gaze at individual cells. It maps instead broad regions of the brain — and with computing power that is sluggish by comparison to what the brain itself manages. The synaptic and neuronal activity that represents thought flashes by in milliseconds. The blood that nourishes such activity, by contrast, susurrates through the corridors of the brain far more slowly, ebbing and flowing over the course of long seconds. A primitive reflection of the lightening flashes of thought.

And so, for the moment, this study is suggestive only. As the technology advances and the picture sharpens, we should revisit this early, exploratory study to get a clearer picture of the differences between the experienced and the novice writer.

But why stop there? What about studies to look at how the brainwork differs between writers constructing entirely fictive worlds and those creatively exploring the underpinnings of our own — journalists, essayists, “explainers.” These are two very different modes of writing. Quite possibly, the brain responds differently in each. And what about studies looking at how the brain behaves in the initial stages of sometimes confused and seemly haphazard composing, as contrasted with the later stages of teasing out and refining ideas?

Perhaps from there, we might look too at editors.

The difference between experienced and novice editors might align nicely with the same divide in writers. But what happens in the brains of editors assessing and addressing different pieces of writing along the spectrum of intervention, the different “levels of edit”? Writing that needs only the lightest of touches to sort it out might call upon different structures than does the work of developmental editing or rewriting. Such studies would incorporate the process of reading also into their results, for editors must read probingly, inquisitively, interrogating the text before ever they begin to work with it.

We might find it fruitful as well to study the contrast between editors and writers. How similar is that portion of the writing process in which the writer prunes and weeds and revises to what it is that editors do when they review a piece needing deep work? How dissimilar? And how does this aspect of the writing process differ, if at all, between those who make their living by writing and those who divide their time equally between writing and editing? How do writers writing compare with editors writing? Is it essentially the same process from the point of view of the brain? How about writers editing as compared with editors editing?

The possibilities are tantalizing.

Once we’re able to peer more closely into the workings of the brain, who knows what additional revelations we’ll find within? And how those discoveries will further enrich our understanding of the mind on supple, shimmering words, words, words. Of the mind engaged in language as art, language as sustenance.

January 2015