Wednesday, December 19, 2018

How to Use Cognitive Science to Crush Writer's Block

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ralph Ellison suffered a 40 year writer's block that broke him.

Understanding how your brain works in writing helps you overcome debilitating writer's block.

Redefining writer's block

If you are a blocked writer, you may be comforted, or tormented, by Ralph Ellison's story. His block scorched an enchanted literary career, a conflagration created in the fuel of his famous 1950 novel Invisible Man.

The book elevated Ellison to the heights of the literary elite and the Civil Rights Movement, and his compulsion to surpass his previous success with a new novel crushed him, his death in 1994 the final defeat. Ellison wrote only one novel despite more than forty years of effort. The New York Times notes that:

"His predicament was worsened by the feeling that he had failed not only himself but the broader black society whose aesthetic he had hoped to champion in a great book that would rival 'Moby-Dick.'”

Ellison's story is the extreme of a serious psychological condition. Although some writers and critics characterize this block as a euphemism for laziness or procrastination, more than likely have not experienced a real one. However, to validate a writer's crisis as a psychological condition requires some scientific substance, evidence.

The Oxford Dictionary falls short in defining the writer's plague as "The condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing." The term "condition" is imprecise, but notice the difference in the following:

"A psychological inhibition preventing a writer from proceeding with a piece."
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The second definition validates the condition by ascribing it to the mind, a psychological impediment. Also, notice that the first suggests that a writer cannot think of what to write, but Merriam-Webster accurately states that a mental obstacle prevents moving further, not an absence of material.

Good writers always have material. They live and breathe it. Ellison did not lack ideas, and we should re-conceive writer's block as:

  • A cognitive interference creating a disconnect between ideas in the executive, creative brain regions and the linguistic regions that physically communicate in writing.

Cognitive Flow

"People have writer's block not because they can't write, but because they despair of writing eloquently."
Anna Quindlen

While cognitive science research is limited in the area of writer's block, information can be extracted from studies that are related. Leslie What in "Writer's Block: Is It All in Your Head?" effectively overviews some significant findings.

Cognitive scientists agree that writing involves some of the highest levels of processing in the human brain, referring to executive functions, complicated mental operations managed by the pre-frontal cortex. This same area of the brain in the frontal lobes is much larger in humans than even closely related species such as the chimpanzee and bonobo. The difference can be noted in physical appearance as our foreheads are less sloping, making more room for this prefrontal cortex.

The high level functions made possible by the prefrontal cortex include planning, organizing, ordering, prioritizing, and many other skills involving writing goals and objectives.

Leslie What points to The New Cognitive Neurosciencesby Knight and Grabowecky, suggesting that the prefrontal area also possesses the ability to contemplate beyond the present moment, into the past and future. These skills are key in composing a story as the writer must pull from information, knowledge and experience outside the present moment, synthesizing and finding relevance in appropriate mental databases.

"A central feature of consciousness is the ability to control the fourth dimension, time. Humans can effortlessly move their internal mental set from the present moment to a past remembrance and just as easily project themselves into a future event."
Knight and Grabowecky

Cognitive Blockage

This same mental maneuvering in the fourth dimension, time, makes story telling possible, in part. In exploring the breakdown of the story telling process, Russell Barkley's concept of "executive dysfunction" ascribes this condition to the disruption of the ability to suppress the present moment long enough to accomplish longer term executive functions. An example is that instead of writing your story, which exceeds the boundaries of the present, you stick yourself in present ruts such as checking email, answering phone calls, and meeting current demands.

An author's work includes intense mental tasks like beginning complicated projects, planning the organization of a piece, transferring thoughts to page, focusing ideas, all of which include labor in the prefrontal cortex. In its most severe form, executive dysfunction has been connected to ADHD, and some writers might hear truth in this comparison, with easy distractibility, difficulty in concentrating, decreased motivation, and inability to focus for extended periods of time.

When Tips Fail
Inherent in the complexity of writing is the subjective experience of each writer's creative process, and just as no author writes in the same way, no author is blocked like another. It's important to be realistic in what to expect from the plethora of self help tips for overcoming block. Some work for many, but none work for all.

In pinpointing the precise nature of blockage in the brain, however, we move a step closer in being able to filter the advice according to what seems scientifically reasonable.

Still, knowledgable trial and error remains the best approach, backed by an understanding of what is happening in your brain. You are not empty of ideas, the well is not dry, and you have plenty of ideas roaming around in your powerful brain. The problem is a disruption in the executive flow and processing of your material.Breaking the block

"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."
Barbara Kingsolver

Rather than create a comprehensive list of tips here, as they are plentiful on the web, I will categorize some of the mental strategies that can alter your executive processes and provide some examples of each.

Your Personal Writing Block Book
I suggest that you keep a writer's block journal to record the details of what works, when, and under what circumstances. A goal I recommend is to create a writer's block book, filled with tested strategies that have worked. Include multimedia such as music, movies, videos, and images that stimulate (or relax) you. This will help you avoid several traps such as endlessly researching writer's block, trying ridiculous tricks repeatedly, and relying on the tips of others to guide you through a very personal and subjective process.

  • Deactivate the executive mind: Many activities center you on processes that will help you disengage the problem at hand in order to restore flow. I place this first because I feel it belongs there as the most effective. Exercises: meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, a calm walk, physical exercise, relaxing music, etc.
  • Activate the executive mind: Other tips center on activating the prefrontal lobe in other areas than your writing to create flow. I find these strategies essential because they engage my mind in something else, and ideas for my writing inevitably bubble up. Exercises: reading in any genre (a book, a newspaper, a blog, a story, a poem, etc.), writing something completely unrelated to your project (an email to a friend, a journal entry, a letter to a family member, a grocery list, etc.).
  • Activate different senses and executive functions: Sometimes our brains enter a rut merely because of the medium of our writing. Exercises: write at the computer, write at the computer with the screen off, write by hand (yes, paper and pencil), record a video, record in audio, or talk your ideas through with a trusted friend.
  • Research to energize the prefrontal lobe: Again, I suggest that blockage does not come from a lack of ideas, and I hold to that. Still, reading up and researching on related material can help you tap into the knowledge you already possess and allow it to flow. Research exercises: psychology, writing, blogging, creativity, topics related to your writing subject, or topics wholly unrelated.
  • Imagine the cognitive and physical process of writing: Much research suggests that imagining or performing the same action engage the exact same regions in the brain. By extension, visualizing yourself writing, flowing, and in the zone stimulates the precise areas of the brain that you need to function again. Do you see the power in this? Imagining that you are writing is psychologically the same as writing. Exercises: get comfortable and quiet, close your eyes, and see yourself writing your best work ever (in whatever form or medium you write in).
  • Pre-write to activate writing centers in the brain: Some writer's greatly benefit from getting something down on the page and planning a bit. This has the advantage of engaging the areas in the brain that you need to get functioning again. Pre-writing Exercises: free-writing, listing (brainstorming), mapping, clustering, journal writing, questioning, and mapping, outlining.

Don't be afraid of crap

"You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."
Octavia Butler

Writing is messy, tough business. All of the above ideas could lead you into a bit of chaos, and perhaps none of them are right for you. Do not give up because you have something important to say, and you will be able to write it eventually.

The need for perfection can cause an impediment. Perhaps the need for perfection on the page blocked Ralph Ellison. We can't know, but he certainly exhibited all of the symptoms of writer's block.

One of the biggest blocks we experience as writers is needing to have all the words appear on the page in perfect form. This is a debilitating pressure for any creative. Remember that writing is a process. You can actually start with crap, a bunch of it, on the page, and later turn it into beauty. Refuse to allow fear to inhibit you.

About the Writer

I am a former English professor, turned writer, but my secret passions include web design, social media, technology, Spanish, neuroscience, construction, landscaping, and bonsai on the side. I love to blog at, and I also write for BC Blog, Technorati, Blog Critics, and Social Media Today.
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3 comments on How to Use Cognitive Science to Crush Writer's Block

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By melanie jean juneau on January 31, 2013 at 12:03 pm

fascinating and true.I have discovered a bit of this advice already and it works. My new motto..."You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."Octavia ButlerRead more at

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By Randy Mitchell on January 31, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Great article and I enjoyed reading it. Good advice, and have used many of the items you listed here. For me, music and watching movies always seems to stir up creativity.

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By Credo on March 29, 2013 at 04:22 pm

Interesting approach! Your heading alone is stylishly fascinating, especially in the demographic of Broowaha. A house full of writers who all would like to know how to overcome writers block.

Great marking technique!


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