It always happens at the worst times; the flow of words across the page suddenly halts as inspiration disappears. This irritating occurrence, known as writer’s block, is defined by Merriam Webster as “a psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece.” We have all experienced its effects on our productivity and mood, but what happens to our brain during writer’s block?
Although there is no formal explanation for this phenomenon, it can be explored using regions of the brain involved in writing. In one study, Stanford researchers measured which areas of the brain were active when participants listened to and wrote down sentences. Neural activity during writing was concentrated in specific areas in the left hemisphere and not on the other side of the brain. This is because language processes are centralized to one “dominant” brain hemisphere, usually the left in right-handed individuals.
Writer’s block can also be compared to neurological conditions that affect writing ability to ascertain regional involvement of the brain. Two patients who began experiencing writing impairment could not spell verbs or use them accurately in a written narrative. More specifically, when they were presented pictures of verbs, they had no difficulty in naming the verbs orally but only wrote about half of them or less correctly. The patients did not have a similar problem with naming or writing nouns, which suggested that the affected brain regions were linked specifically to the action of writing verbs.
Researchers identified these affected regions using magnetic resonance imaging technology that measured the amount of blood flow to different parts of the brain. Low blood flow in an area would limit neural activity and possibly explain the writing impairment in the patients. They located several regions in the left hemisphere that satisfied this criteria and after blood flow was restored, the patients were able to complete the verb writing task with more than 90% accuracy.
While these studies indicate areas of the brain that may be relevant to writer’s block, writing is also a dynamic process that involves the whole brain. In a podcast about writer’s block, Michael Grybko of the Psychology Department at the University of Washington said, “Ultimately, the brain is one organ and it’s not like a linear set of processes that happens to lead to a behavior.” As a result, outside factors affecting how we synthesize information and form sentences can influence our brain during the writing process.
For example, anxiety plays a role in working memory, which is the information that we can use from our experiences or the environment. We rely on this mental resource to remember information that we have just heard and to stay focused on our goals. Anxiety related to a deadline can affect the capacity of working memory, making it more difficult to filter out irrelevant information. These limitations impact writing specifically when applicable ideas and thoughts are organized into sentences.
At the same time, though, some extraneous information can be useful in solving problems that require creativity. One study found that participants rated as “early birds” performed better on these type of problems at night, during their non-optimal time, and vice versa for “night owls.” This could be due to the greater amount of information that is accessible during these off-peak times, which might allow writers to avoid possible creative obstacles. As such, perhaps circadian rhythm influences susceptibility to writer’s block.
These contributing factors make writing a multifaceted process that is unique to each individual. One consequence of this variety is that there is no universal “cure” for writer’s block and solutions can vary from taking a break to discussing the topic with someone else. Regardless, as researchers continue to learn more about how the brain processes writing, writer’s block remains a challenge with no right answer.