On Writer's Block

Previously posted on Annotate
February 2006

I’ve never read anything that captures the torment of a bad day of writing as well as the following passage from the preface of Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

. . . I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.
I remember being intensely relieved when I first read this ten years ago. It seemed clear to me that only people of a certain disposition were afraid they were suffering from an undiagnosed embolism at the age of 22. And that I was one of those people. But so was Joan Didion! I felt a profound and, as it turns out, entirely unwarranted sense of kinship.

Recent research suggests that this feeling of temporary aphasia is not at all uncommon among writers. And Didion’s depiction of her distress may be more than metaphorical. It may be a surprisingly accurate description of the mechanics of writer’s block.

Neurologist Alice Flaherty, of Massachusetts General Hospital, began researching language after suffering from a temporary bout of hypergraphia. The mirror image of writer’s block, hypergraphia is a syndrome which results in an uncontrollable compulsion to write. After four months of scribbling Zen Koan-like sentence fragments on Post-Its in the middle of the night, Flaherty was driven to figure out exactly what was happening to her. So, she embarked on an exploration of the regions of the brain responsible for language.

Brain scans of people suffering from hypergraphia quickly revealed abnormal activity in the limbic system. Flaherty found that hypergraphia was associated with hyperactivity in the temporal lobe, the area of the cerebral cortex responsible for assigning meaning and significance to language. For hypergraphics, everything seems saturated with meaning--hence, the desperation to get it all down on paper.

Hypergraphia is relatively rare. (Frankly, I’m not sure whether I’m happy about that or not, but that's neither here nor there.) What’s important to us is that in the process of researching her own condition, Flaherty made some startling discoveries about writer’s block. She discovered that patients who claimed to be suffering from block were experiencing unusual brain activity as well. Like hypergraphics, blocked writer’s temporal lobes appeared to be super-charged, but brain scans showed that there was decreased activity in another language center--the frontal lobe.

While her findings are still preliminary, Flaherty believes that writer’s block is the product of reduced interaction between the temporal lobe and frontal lobe, the primary center for producing language. When activity in the frontal lobe is suppressed, as Flaherty contends it is in those with block, the temporal lobe kicks into overdrive. This means, essentially, that when you have a case of writer’s block, your facility with language decreases and your ability to assign meaning is amplified. Consequently, you end up producing less material, but your “inner critic” is more powerful than ever.

But more important than discovering 'how' writer’s block occurs, is discovering 'why'. Unfortunately, Flaherty can’t provide us with the answer just yet. Thus far, all neurologists have been able to establish is that block occurs more frequently when people are depressed. And, as many of you already know, depression is far more likely to occur in highly creative people. Writers, for instance, are eight to ten times more likely to be depressive than less creatively inclined people. Poets, it seems, are even worse off. According to some research, 70 percent of poets suffer from manic depression. (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

Flaherty encourages people in the throes of a deep depression to take advantage of the medications on the market. But she cautions against blunting your emotions, because this too can contribute to a dip in creativity. Neuroscientists say you are most likely to be visited by “the muse” when you’re in a state of arousal, because emotions like passion, fury, and ecstasy increase activity in the temporal lobe (the meaning maker). According to Flaherty, “slight agitation” is far preferable to serenity if you want to make great art. (Infinite Mind)

(For more on creativity and depression, see CBS.com)

Flaherty also notes that perseveration is a hallmark of writer’s block. Perseveration is just a fancy word for being in a mental rut. Writers suffering from block often describe the experience of grasping for meaning. Flaherty suggests that this is the result of perseveration. In these moments, writers are caught in a cycle of trying to solve a mental problem that is no longer relevant. The trick, she says, is to step away. Take a walk. (Exercise and shock are, apparently, two of the easiest ways of defeating perseveration.) Or have a cup of coffee. (Stimulants are thought to aid in refocusing your attention. But once you become a habitual user, the effects are minimal at best.) The key thing is to get out of the feedback loop.

Understanding the neuro-dynamics of writer’s block doesn’t have to be disempowering. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Knowing that writer’s block really is “all in your head” can free you up. No more self-flagellation. Just step away from the computer, walk to the cafe, and have a cup of coffee. If that doesn't work, you might consider some happy drugs.


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