Write-Brained: The Source of Writer’s Block

Neuroscience of Writing




Some contend that writer’s block isn’t “real.” Often, I’m sure these people intend to say that writer’s block is self-imposed or all in your head. Both of these things are true, but that doesn’t mean that writer’s block is in any way less actual or problematic. In this entry, we’ll explore where writer’s block happens in the brain so we can develop strategies for combating it.

In previous entries, we explored two key ideas that are relevant here. First, that creative writing takes place in one’s neo-mammalian brain. And second, that the creative element of the process is distinct from the analytical process. To begin our discussion of where writer’s block comes from, allow me to introduce a third key idea: It is possible to get “locked out” of our neo-mammalian brain and our lateral thinking process.

To start our discussion, I will discuss how each of these “lock outs” can happen.

The Amygdala’s Role in Shutting Down Creativity

The amygdala, as noted previously, acts as a sort of gatekeeper between the different segments of the brain. Its function is to evaluate which stimuli are important and determine when a situation warrants “shutting off” certain parts of the brain.

Why would the amygdala shut off our most advanced mental functions? Simply put, the most primitive and simplistic parts of the brain are also the most vital to basic survival. While we can lose access to our neo-mammalian or, to some degree, our mammalian brains, our reptilian brain never shuts off. I find it useful to think of the “three brains” as connected by a series of floodgates. When the amygdala determines that more resources are needed in the primal responses of the reptilian or mammalian brain, it can prevent mental resources from flowing on to the unnecessary areas.

The problem here is that the amygdala is not well adapted to modern life. There is a comparison so often used in motivational psychology that it has become cliche, but it does a good job at communicating the idea. I hope you’ll indulge me.

Saber-Toothed Tigers and Modern Misfirings

Image courtesy of Quinet

During the early stages of evolution, the amygdala evaluated threats that were almost exclusively physical in nature. When faced, for example, with a saber toothed tiger, redirecting energy away from complex and creative thinking made the most sense. What was truly necessary was not the ability for abstract thought, which would likely come up with a creative solution after you were already devoured and partially digested. Rather, you needed a rapid response that relied on improved reflexes, muscle response, and so forth: The fight, flight, or freeze response.

Fast forward to the modern era, and the saber toothed tiger of yore has vanished. In its place, we have deadlines, intimidating bosses, and major writing projects that we desperately want to complete. When we have developed anxiety around a topic or when we perceive an outcome as important, the amygdala can view the risk of failure in these categories as a “threat.” Problematically, the options to fight, flee, or freeze tend to be counter-productive.

This “modern misfiring” is especially problematic for writers, who require the very resources the amygdala strips away to handle the “threat” the amygdala is responding to. When you feel threatened or when something feels crucial, the amygdala may well respond in this evolutionarily sensible way that happens to stop productivity dead in its tracks.

This, more than anything, is what I believe people are describing when they say they have “writer’s block.” Sometimes this block remains because the stress of the feared outcomes continues to hammer away. And sometimes things get worse because the writer panics in response to their block, worsening the neo-mammalian lock out.

Locking Into Linear Thinking

Admittedly, the ideas of linear/lateral thinking and their function in creativity and language are not well-tested ideas. In fact, I sourced them far more from rhetorical philosophy than from psychology. That said, I’ve found a second form of writer’s block can happen when we lock into linear thinking.

As I noted earlier, language can help us compress ideas while creativity helps us re-expand them. The process of writing involves both, but I strongly believe the sequence starts with the creative process (three-dimensional, non-linguistic thinking that helps us find the ideas), moves to the analytical process (finding the right words to express these thoughts), and then returns to the creative process as the story (or poem, or essay) moves forward.

The problem here is when we remain entirely in the analytical process. Because this “lock in” is not as entirely mechanical or as well-tested, all I can offer are some theories on why and when this happens.

The first and most common pitfall I see comes from perfectionism. When obsessed with getting the words exactly right or when frightened of making a mistake, the brain will be narrowed in on the analytical process. Certainly, there’s a time for this in the writing process: It’s called editing. While writing, however,  the critical lens and constant self-questioning can keep the brain in the analytical zone. Those who cannot let go of perfectionism can find themselves stuck there permanently.

The second pitfall comes from the fear of arbitrary judgment. Rather than being self-critical of a work and obsessively trying to find the right answer, many writers fall into the trap of fearing external judgment — of readers, of teachers, or of peers. When this anxiety takes over, it can keep writers questioning themselves and feeling that they need to find the “right answers” despite the fact that no such answers truly exist. As long as there is no way to ensure that the “requirements” have been met — and in most every case such assurance is impossible — the analytical process can cycle through possibilities endlessly.

Hopefully, this broad level look at writer’s block will help you recognize where your blocks are coming from and what you may be able to do to respond. We’ll get into some specific suggestions on that front in a few entries.

The main thing I hope you take away from this entry is this: Writer’s block stems from real processes happening in your mind. Neither writing itself nor the inability to write come from supernatural forces. I have spoken to many writers who, facing a block, come to believe that they have entirely lost their creative gift. The reality is that the process is more mental than mystical, and that mental blocks simply prevent us from accessing our creativity rather than preventing us from having it.

Overcoming writer’s block is a matter of avoiding dysfunctional thought patterns, being aware of potentially problematic situations, and employing the right coping strategies. We will soon discuss strategies that — according to my own experience and the field of motivational psychology — are likely to work. In our next entry, however, we’ll take a brief detour to look at some of the chemical processes tied to motivation, some of the crutches often used by writers, and some of the risks involved.