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Daniel Sintos Daniel Sintos
Recommendations: 16

The Science of It All


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Ever wondered why some days you can sit down, grab a pen (or keyboard), and write a flood of ideas almost ad infinitum? And then there are those moments when the cursor blinks mockingly at you, the blank page taunting you with its huge mass of blankness. As American journalist and biographer Gene Fowler put it, "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." So, why is it that writing has to be so difficult? Or, rather, why does writer's block have to barge in and burst our creative bubble every fricking time?!


Good thing there's an app -- I mean, explanation, for that. But to do that, we must go where no man has ever gone before: the brain.


The brain is a squishy, greyish, mass containing over 400 billion nerve cells. You'd have to take every single person in the world (man, woman, and child) and clone them 57 times to get close to that number. And to think my parents developed brain tumours with just one of me.


Neuropsychologists, being the cool, smart, and bored people that they are decided to map out the brain to see which part does what. After years of research and hours lining up for more research grants, they found a number of neat things. A few of them will enlighten us writers on our daily dilemma.


Researchers found that the two hemispheres of the brain (left and right) seem to have different roles when it comes to cognitive function, especially in regards to language. This is called lateralization.


The left hemisphere holds a specialization for language for most people (about 95%). The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is responsible for visual and auditory integration and is therefore associated with working on geometric puzzles, navigation around familiar spaces, and even musical ability (Springer & Deutsch, 1998). In case you're wondering, this is where the pop psychology of left-brain, right-brain eventually stems from; left-brains are seen as being analytical, coherent, and eloquent whilst right-brains are viewed as creative, spontaneous, and more open to express themselves. However, this view is wrong. Dead wrong. The brain is, luckily for those neuropsychologists, far more complicated than that. (Yay for more research grants!)


Researchers found, among other things, that certain parts of the brain (no matter on which hemisphere they were located) had very specific functions. For example, the hippocampus, an elongated, mini-eggplant looking organ, (mmm... eggplants...) is involved in the formation of long-term memory, learning, and (to a lesser degree) emotion. So the next time you can't remember something, you know which part of the brain to blame. Wait, do you? Good, 'cause I don't remember.


Of particular interest to us writers are two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.


The amygdala is involved in emotion regulation and aggression. Being located right beside the hippocampus, it also modulates the strength of emotional memories and is involved in emotional learning. This is why you'll probably know exactly where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the Twin Towers tragedy. Ditto for special moments like your wedding day, the day your first child was born, your first kiss, or when you accidentally went in the wrong washroom.


The prefrontal cortex is involved with what neuroscientists like to call executive functioning -- planning, making decisions, implementing strategies, editing, inhibiting inappropriate behaviours, and using working memory to process information. The prefrontal cortex is conveniently located right behind your forehead (after the skull, of course). So the next time your decision leads you astray or you fail to ignore the call of chocolate bunnies, don't give yourself a facepalm. Foreheadpalms are where it's at.


So now you're sitting there, saying, "That's cool, Daniel. Lots of new info for my hippocampus to sort. I'm bored." To that I say, "But wait! There's more!"


Current research is showing us that certain parts of the brain "fight it out" in terms of resources (glucose, oxygen, etc.). Luckily for us writers, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are sworn enemies. So why in the world should we care? Other than getting ideas for the final battle between the Amygdala Galaxy and the Prefrontal Cortex System, we get a few answers to our earlier questions.


When you're writing with all your heart, crying as your character dies by the hands of their lover right beside the kitchen cabinet they had built just the week before, your amygdala's probably taking dominance and your prefrontal cortex has taken a backseat. Then, as the dust settles and eyes are dried, you now have the wonderful opportunity of hashing through all your spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and misshapen sentences. On the other end of the spectrum, when we work with our prefrontal cortex, we're probably filtering our fresh ideas, judging them as too non-sensical, filled with plot holes, or my favourite "my character will never do such a thing!" Sometimes, we filter ideas so well (and fast -- about milliseconds fast) that we think we never had any in the first place. Hence, our pal Sir Writer's Block is born.


So, with all that info in check, what now? Now you go out to the street and tell your neighbours, "I just wasted an incredible amount of time!" But seriously... Got fresh ideas, but feel like Sir W. B. is looming over you? Go out where there's a beautiful view, watch an emotional movie, listen to a song that really speaks to you, then write with all the fury that your pen can handle. Need to edit your work, but you're not sure if you're catching all your mistakes? Do the daily crossword, watch National Geographic or Discovery Channel, read a book on grammar, then organize the collective beauty that is your piece.


Always keep in your hippocampus: Writing is a revolution against the blank page. To win the war, not only must you hone the skills of the trade, but you must master when to use which weapon at any given time.


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Daniel Sintos's website: http://thehermitempire.wordpress.com/

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