Whether applied to solving everyday problems or advancing scientific and artistics fields in society, creativity is a major distinguishing factor unique to human beings . The application of creativity can produce an end result that is both original in nature and influential on other people’s perspectives, emotions and thoughts [2, 3]. Creative cognition has gained attention in neuroscience research since the mechanisms of functionality underlying creative thought are highly complicated and involve multiple brain regions and neural networks [1, 3, 4]. Creativity is applied in two common methods: either through a series of tasks that lead up to an end goal, or by training in a specific area of creativity like visual art or music .
This article aims to explore the brain processes behind creative writing, a domain that stems from creativity, in order to determine whether creative writing is a universal skill that anyone can develop or if it is specific to a select few in the population . According to Liu et. al.’s (2015) study, creative writing can be defined as: “The critical reflection and professionally supervised acquisition of literary techniques … enabling access to several creative processes that lead to literary achievement” . Under this description, any form of literature or prose that involves problem solving or the generation of new insights is considered creative writing, including narration, poetry, and scientific analysis. Evidently, creative writing plays a major role in communication among people since it is present in numerous forms within society. As such, if creative writing is proven to be a universal skill, then more emphasis should be established in schools and workplaces to ensure that literary skills are constantly improving.
The Creative Process
To determine whether creative writing is a universal skill or not, the first step is to understand the underlying processes in the human brain that are active as one writes a creative piece. The foundational creative process, as Beaty et. al.’s (2018) study discovered, is the subconscious groundwork that facilitates creative cognition during activities and fields that require creativity,  including creative writing. The two stages of the general creative process are the generation phase, characterized by the spontaneous way ideas are produced, and the evaluation phase, which includes the selection of ideas and correction of errors . Three neural networks in the human brain simultaneously interact to regulate the generation and evaluation phases: the default mode (DM), salience, and executive networks .
Evidently, the creative process is completely subconscious, so one is unaware when it is functioning. The conscious experience of creativity is unique to each individual, as some people report having their best ideas in the shower while others find it more effective to walk through nature or exercise . However, there are three common phases of the conscious experience of creativity, starting with the preparation of information, such as researching or gathering data. The preparation phase is mainly used to gain background knowledge or inspiration on a topic or problem to solve . Then, the incubation period involves the mental organization of the information collected. In the incubation phase, the creative process unconsciously and actively works to produce ideas and create connections from the gathered information using the DM, salience, and executive networks . Finally, a moment of insight is spontaneously experienced by the conscious mind when the best idea is decided upon . It is often termed the “eureka” moment, where one can finally act to produce a useful product .
The Impact of Expertise
After understanding the neurological pathways for creativity, it is evident that creative writing is a universal skill that all humans have. According to Liu et. al.’s study (2015), the same key regions of the creative process are active for both expert authors that have spent years practicing the skill, and novice authors that have just started their career . An expert’s superior skills lies in the strength of the connections between the DM and executive networks, as well as the increase of connections the DM network has to downstream brain regions . Because they have more years of experience, expert authors increase the connection of the DM network to the limbic system and left caudate nucleus, instilling creative writing as a well-practiced procedural routine [3,4]. The language processing regions such as the perisylvian region are also more strongly connected to the DM network in experts. As a result, experts have enhanced ability to apply literary techniques to their pieces, and undergo the editing process more effectively . Emotional expressions through written articulation are also better executed in an expert author’s brain since there is an increased connection to the insula and putamen . In comparison, the novice author’s MPFC has the strongest connection to the DLPFC, and as a result, they have a higher functioning executive network that sets up too many constraints for idea generation . Consequently, the novice author commonly struggles with writer’s block, or the inability to continue writing since they have more difficulty in producing a new idea that could advance their piece.
Similar to other creative domains, creative writing is developed with training and practice. Practicing the skill of creating writing will in turn, increase the connections between the DM network and other downstream regions [3, 4]. As a result, one’s creative writing will become more diverse with literary techniques, and the writing process will be more intuitive overall [3, 4]. For example, the legendary author JK Rowling states, “I write nearly every day. Some days I write for ten or eleven hours. Other days I might only write for three hours” . Rowling, being a globally renowned professional in narrative writing, was able to reach her level of expertise through daily practice. Therefore, the more experienced an author becomes, the easier it will be to advance their skill. Through practice, the expert author gains the power to create meaningful literary pieces that can engage readers and immerse them in a product that is both unique and impactful.
How Creative Writing Can Be Used as a Treatment in Mental Health
To understand how creative writing impacts established authors on a daily basis, the study by Liu et. al. (2015) analyzed the mental health of authors, amongst other creative professions, in the Swedish population . The result of the study revealed that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal risk were associated with the author profession . This finding doesn’t necessarily mean that all authors will experience a mental disorder because they chose to be an author. Instead, it suggests that it is quite common for people with these mental disorders to gravitate towards a writing career. Writing gives the opportunity to express and understand one’s emotions and experiences, which could potentially assist people who struggle with mental disorders or trauma. The famous author Stephen King explains that, “Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life” . Here, King shows that anyone who is having a difficult time navigating their emotions or motivations can employ writing to remember what is important to them.
Additionally, creative writing has the potential to improve mental health treatment and awareness in hospitals, care facilities, and society as a whole. In fact, a study by Hellum et. al. (2017) investigated whether creative writing could be used as a therapy for mental disorders, specifically focusing on patients with alcohol-use disorder . In Hellum et. al.’s (2017) study, a series of six creative writing workshops was developed and taught by two well-established authors for a class comprised of both patients and their therapists . The writing workshops were used as add-ons in the patients’ treatments, and as such, did not focus specifically on patient issues, but instead provided opportunities for patients to explore themselves and their interests . After the last creative writing workshop, the participants involved were interviewed for their opinion on the impact of the creative writing courses on their overall mental health . Most of the patients in this study found that they gained self-confidence, felt a sense of unity with each other, and became motivated to restart old hobbies and interests . Interestingly, both the patients and therapists agreed that after the creative writing courses, their client-therapist relationship improved as they both developed a mutual understanding of each other’s perspective . These results point to the idea that people with mental health issues gravitate towards creative writing careers because they provide the chance to express one’s struggles and experiences in a style that best suits individual needs. The findings also show that creative writing does not only benefit patients, as the experience also positively impacted the therapists, resulting in more meaningful patient-therapist relationships .
To conclude, creative writing is in fact a universal skill that all humans possess. With training and practice, anyone can reach a level of expertise like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. After all, even professionals start as inexperienced pupils but learn through continuous practice to master creative writing. Creative writing can assist all people with better understanding their emotions, thoughts and ideas. In society, and especially for students, people are constantly ignoring their personal concerns or passions to impress others, follow society’s trends, or earn an income. By continuously practicing and incorporating creative writing in one’s life, one can explore interesting questions and ideas in a space that is personal to oneself, the mind. As such, it is essential for educational facilities and school boards to teach students the importance of creative writing in developing one’s identity and communicating one’s opinions to society. Even though the main neural processes of creative writing are the same for all people, the overall act of writing and idea generation is unique to each individual and their experiences. Each person has their own views and opinions about the world, which can become voiced through written literature, and even engraved into history. The fantastical power of creative writing is that it can connect multiple people together and have a major impact on society, whether it be on an international scale or across centuries of time. Anyone can have an influence on the world, but it all starts by taking the first step of putting pen to paper or typing the first word in a literary piece.
Written by Lubna Najm
Mentored by Jim Xie
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