Researchers led by neuroscientist Martin Lotze from the University of Greifswald in Germany have used functional magnetic resonance (fMIR) scanners to get a sneak peek of what happens in the brains of professional and non-experienced writers when they are working on a story.
Over the past few years, Lotze has scanned the brains of opera singers and piano players to try to find out which regions activate when people are doing art. But this is the very first time that scientists have tracked the brain activity of both professional and novice writers when they sit down to create a piece of fiction, reported Carl Zimmer over at The New York Times.
The 48 volunteers, 20 enrolled in a creative writing program and 28 with no previous experience in literary writing, were given two tasks. First, they needed to copy some text. This gave Lotze a baseline reading of the brain on writing. Then, he asked the volunteers to come up a story—all of them got the same first few lines of a short story, had a minute to plan, and then about two minutes to continue the story.
When the volunteers were planning the story, vision-processing regions in the brain became active, reported Zimmer. This means that they could be ‘seeing’ the scenes they wanted to write inside their heads.
Once the participants started writing, the hippocampus—a region of the brain associated with memory—became active. Lotze told The New York Times this could be happening because writers retrieve information from that area to come up with different characters and situations.
But there was a difference between seasoned writers and novices: The brains of expert writers also showed activity in regions involved in speech. “I think both groups are using different strategies,” Lotze said to Zimmer. It’s possible that the amateurs are watching their stories like a movie inside their heads, but the professionals may use their inner voice to narrate the story instead, explained Lotze.
There was one more difference. The caudate nucleus, which plays a huge role in activities that require a lot of training, such as music or sports, became activate in expert writers, but not in novices.
The results, published in the journal NeuroImage, have caused controversy. Although they give us an insight into the inner workings of the brains of professional writers, the experiment doesn't explain where creativity and inspiration come from, or how they work. As Lotze told Zimmer, "Creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study."