The science of creativity: How the brain generates fiction


Wait, don’t run away!  I know the pointlessly exaggerated competition between science nerds and humanities geeks might be kicking in right now, urging you to click the back button and flee from all manner of mathematically-based gobbledygook, but don’t do it!  This stuff is kind of cool, I promise.

Once upon a time, a research team from Germany stuck a bunch of people in an fMRI machine and looked at their brains while they wrote stuff down, the New York Times reports.  They compared experienced writers enrolled in a university creative fiction program with some people who had little to no experience with telling stories, and asked them to complete a couple of different writing-related tasks – reading, copying existing text, brainstorming, and composing a short story – while looking at which parts of their brain lit up while doing it.

Now here’s the interesting part.  The inexperienced writers were using the visual parts of their brain, in effect “seeing” the story as they wrote it, while the experienced group showed more activity in the areas related to speech.

While the study certainly has plenty of limitations, including a small sample size and a couple of questions about whether the design of the experiment really illustrates what the researchers were trying to show, it does highlight a dichotomy between creative types.  In very unscientific terms, I’d divide writers into “TV watchers” and “bards.”

I’m a “TV watcher.”  For me, at least, fiction has always been an intensely visual experience.  When I create a world, I enter into it completely: sight, sound, taste, smell, everything.  I’m there, as far as I’m concerned.  Fully absorbed.  For me, writing fiction is the act of translating an incredibly rich imaginary world, with its costumes and sets and stage directions, into something that fits into a book.  The challenge is capturing all those indefinable visual cues that relay attitudes and emotions and then pasting them onto the page, trapped in a tapestry of evocative language.

The “bards” approach fiction from the opposite direction: using words to conjure up a world.  Like an ancient story teller singing tales around the campfire, they build their universes with linguistic constructs that compress into something greater than themselves.  They are lyrical and eloquent, and they spin poetry out of nothing, which is a skill I greatly admire.

I don’t think it has much to do with being an expert or a novice, and I kind of agree that the study has significant limits.  Maybe people who have bard-brains are more likely to be attracted to the writer’s life, and are therefore self-selecting.  Maybe the TV watchers prefer the visual arts, and channel their skills in a different direction.

Neuroscience is great and all, but I think we can all agree that we aren’t at the point where we can adequately pinpoint what makes human creativity tick (nor does it offer any progress towards a single dose of medication to cure writer’s block).  It’s an interesting step towards gathering data in a very messy area, but there’s a long way to go before we can measure the intricacies of the inventive mind.

The study is published in NeuroImage (which in some fonts looks like the much-cooler NEUROL-MAGE), and the abstract is available here.

One Reply to “The science of creativity: How the brain generates fiction”

  1. Great post! I used to work in neuroscience research before delving into a full time writing career, so I still love to see how the brain reacts to stories and creativity. When I site down to write a scene, I watch it play out in my head and then try to capture that on paper so I guess I’m a novice. Sigh. If you haven’t read Wired for Story, check it out – great insights into how our brains react to fiction (without being too technical) along with excellent writing tips.

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