The Godlike Mystery of Creative Writing


A couple of years ago researchers, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, ran an experiment which monitored, using an fMRI machine, what happens in the brain when someone is composing a work of fiction. The subjects being tested were given the opening sentences of a story and asked to come up with what happened next. They first had one minute to brainstorm ideas and then two minutes to write down what they came up with.
What they found was that the areas of the brain that came alive during the brainstorming part of the experiment were associated with vision, as though the subjects were “seeing” the story in their mind’s eye. The hippocampus, which deals with retrieving factual information, also came into play during this period. However, Dr. Lotze was not satisfied, mainly because the people being tested in the experiment had no previous experience of creative writing. So he ran a second experiment on a group of experienced writers and found that a completely different area of the brain was activated, to do with speech, as though the subjects were forming words in their mind. The two groups also differed when it came to the actual writing part of the experiment, the more experienced group activating a region related to practice and repetitive action.
The experiment has received some criticism because some think that the type of activities tested were not focused enough. It should have been testing the difference between writing a story and writing a fact-based essay.
In a sense, experiments like these can never really uncover the mystery of how someone can sit down at a desk and come up with a story that no one else has ever written before. We know this instinctively without having to conduct scientific experiments. When you are “making stuff up” there are a huge number of interrelated details held in your brain that you combine in a unique way to produce story elements. And of course none of this even touches upon the skill involved in retrieving the information you need to form words and write in complete sentences with correct spelling and form those sentences using logical grammar. It is clear to anyone who has ever made up a story and written it down that it is a complex task involving multiple skills that have been learned and new images and ideas that are the product of combinations of information in your brain.
There is something mystical about creative writing. We could even go so far as to say there is something godlike about it, in that the writer appears to create a whole world and peoples it out of more or less nothing. It is a strange but happy thought that in some way we can come closer to God by participating in creation through creative writing.

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