I’m finalizing and editing that pesky post I previously mentioned. So while I prepare it for posting next week, here’s an old post worth revisiting and a topic we’re all too familiar with:
What is Writer’s Block?
Writer’s block is defined as the inability to produce new writing.
It has a higher occurrence in people who are depressed and depression is more likely to occur in highly creative individuals.
Writers are eight to ten times more likely to be depressed than the less creative and an estimated seventy percent of poets suffer from manic depression [source].
Preservation, meaning being in a mental rut, is the hallmark of writer’s block. It is being caught in a cycle of trying to solve a mental problem that is no longer relevant. This can lead to procrastination and pushing last minute deadlines.
Some thrive off this form of pressure and produce their best work. While this pressure allows some us to focus and push through, many procrastinators are soft-core adrenaline junkies. Why?
Because we get a boost of dopamine and adrenaline as we approach a deadline.
If we look at the reward/punishment system, many of us try to implement to enhance our performance, it has only been proven effective for mechanical tasks but produces terrible results for mental tasks.
These mental limitations can lead to failures which can trigger feelings of guilt further increasing the anxiety which inhibit our writing and creative abilities.
Once that high goes away we have to deal with the effects of coming down from that high. This down-regulation of dopamine over time can become an addiction that manifests itself in many habits commonly seen in writers, such as caffeine and smoking. Use of persistent dopamine stimulation leads to further down-regulation and dependency which isn’t even the problem: the problem is finding a healthy way to do so.
When we are under stress, control in our cerebral cortex shifts to the limbic system, which regulates our fight or flight responses. These stress response locks part of our brain needed to write.
The amygdala, part of the limbic system, is responsible for assessing risk and distributing resources appropriately. Our modern advances and stressors have made the amygdalan response surprisingly destructive [source].
So what causes this mental blockage?
On a quest for further understanding is Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital, who began researching this very phenomenon after suffering from a temporary bout of hypergraphia, a syndrome that results in an uncontrollable compulsion to write.
Intrigued, she decided to further pursue the neurological aspect hypergraphia and writer’s block. With hypergraphia, everything is saturated with meaning, hence the incredible agility to write excessively but it can be a symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy [source]. Figuring how contradictory these two disorders were, she assumed they would yield opposite neurological findings.
What she found was that brain scans of individuals with hypergraphia actually revealed similar abnormal activity in the limbic system as brain scans of individuals with writer’s block.
Both produce hyperactivity in the temporal lobe, the area of cerebral cortex that assigns meaning and significance to language. However in the instance of writer’s block, scans showed decreased activity in the language center: the frontal cortex.
Writer’s block is then a product of decreased interaction between the meaning center and the primary center for producing language: the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe. When activity in the frontal lobe is suppressed, the temporal lobe kicks into overdrive.
What’s the writer’s block cure?
A happy brain!
When you’re happy your brain performs faster, more efficiently and creatively. There are two psychiatric disorders most linked to writer’s block and they are: depression and anxiety. Both show a decrease in brain activity in the frontal lobes.
Behavioral treatments that help with both anxiety and depression would be the most effective in aiding with writer’s block, such as exercise, psychotherapy, and meditation. Specifically exercise has been shown to balance chemicals, decrease stress, and bolsters happiness.
While self-management is key to the recovery and remission of these mental ailments, often people attempt to self-treat their blocks in ways that merely aggravate them neurochemically.
So if breaking a sweat is not effective and this has been a long-time issue, maybe it’s time to seek professional help.
In her book The Midnight Disease, Flaherty (2004, p. 147) elaborates further about treatment in the blurb below:
In the many people who have low-energy blocks with a depressed character, the success of antidepressant drugs, which work on serotonin, and also norepinephrine and dopamine, implicates these three systems. People with high energy block may benefit from these same drugs, but in addition may be helped to some extent by sedatives, which decrease cortical excitation. Whether blocks are high-energy blocks or low-energy blocks, their association with intense mood states demonstrates the importance of the limbic system in the desire to write.
In conclusion, Flaherty (2004) deduces that writer’s block is primarily a frontal lobe process rather than temporal lobe and appears to share the same silence as Broca’s Aphasia (the inability to verbally communicate) with the task specificity plus stress dependence of writer’s cramp (spasm affecting certain muscles of the hands and/or fingers); both considered frontal lobe neurological disorders (Flaherty, 2004, p. 147).
When writer’s block occurs: your facility with language decreases and your ability to assign meaning is amplified. So while you end up producing less material with writer’s block, your “inner critic” is more powerful than ever. Unlike with hypergraphia where patients can write words but not all have the capacity to write complete sentences that have meaning.
So in moments like these when my frontal lobe is mute and spastic, I’ll get up and walk away and write about it. It seems to have helped, don’t you think? I managed to create a full post about it – Check. Mate.
Although I’m not technically experiencing writer’s block, I was experiencing researchers block. Thankfully, I’ve passed that hurdle and now I’m onto everything else which takes just as much time. Looking forward to finally getting this post out of my drafts and published.
What’s your cure for writer’s block? What’s the longest it took you to finish a post?
Sources: Image Header