Have you ever wondered how prolific writers summon vast stores of creativity without seemingly breaking a sweat? I would like to introduce you to a guest segment where I enlist the help of a neuroscientist to give us a tour of The Writer’s Brain.
I’ve invited research scientist Michael Grybko — of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington — to help me define creativity from a scientific standpoint.
He will help us to pinpoint where exactly in the brain creative ideas come from, decide if you can teach an old writer new tricks, and test the theory that writer’s brains are similar to professional athletes.
In this 22-minute file Michael Grybko and I discuss:
- How Science is Expanding Our Definition of Creativity
- Why Memory Plays Such a Big Part in Writing
- Don’t Take Your Typing Skills for Granted
- Where Creative Ideas Come From
- Can You Teach an Old Writer New Tricks?
- Why Staying Curious Is So Important to Creativity
- Are Prolific Writers Like Pro Athletes?
- Why “Write What You Know” Is Good Advice
Listen to The Writer Files below ...
The Show Notes
How Neuroscientist Michael Grybko Defines Creativity
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Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers — from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond. I’m your host, Kelton Reid — writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.
In this episode of The Writer Files, I’d like to introduce you to a segment where I enlist the help of a neuroscientist to give us a tour of the writer’s brain.
I’ve invited research scientist Michael Grybko to come on the show and help us to define creativity from a scientific standpoint. To pinpoint where exactly in the brain creative ideas come from, decide if you can teach an old writer new tricks, and test the theory that writers’ brains are similar to professional athletes. Let me introduce Michael.
Michael Grybko: My name is Michael Grybko. I’m a research scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Kelton Reid: Thank you so much for jumping on The Writer Files to talk to us about a few pressing subjects.
Michael Grybko: Thanks for having me.
Kelton Reid: Absolutely. Let’s get into it. Just for starters, the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘creativity’ simply as “the facility of being creative; ability or power to create.” That seems pretty straightforward, but you and I know that’s not quite as simple as that.
Michael Grybko: Right, there’s a lot more going into creativity.
Kelton Reid: Writers often equate creativity to some mystical jolt of inspiration from the gods. When I got my creative writing degree, there was always this deification of great writers of yore. I’m thinking specifically of Shakespeare of Hemingway. These figures of renown that were extremely prolific, creative to the point where we sometimes question if they’re real, I think. There’s a whole society of people in Great Britain that don’t think Shakespeare was a real person because he invented half of the English language.
It doesn’t help that we pass around these urban legends about Jack Kerouac writing a novel in a weekend or the fact that David Foster Wallace wrote a book that was longer than War and Peace. I think as writers, as we’re facing the blinking cursor and wondering where that juice comes from, we’re wondering is it divine inspiration, is it methamphetamines, is it some supernatural jolt of electricity that’s bestowed on mortals? I guess I just want to turn to you, to science.
How Science Is Expanding Our Definition of Creativity
Michael Grybko: Science is asking some of these questions as well. Specifically, this is a topic that is being dealt with in neuroscience. We’re trying to answer the same question — what is creativity? There very much is a lot of evidence out there showing that this is just a function of our brains. This is a neurological process that’s going on. A lot of it so far can be explained that way. These aren’t some supernatural being or some black magic going on.
Kelton Reid: They’re not?
Michael Grybko: A lot of this creativity we can explain in just plain old brain function.
Kelton Reid: Cool. So we can debunk some of the urban legends?
Michael Grybko: Yeah. It is very intriguing. How did Shakespeare do what he did? Creativity as a whole, how did Bach create that much music? In science, we define ‘creativity’ as an idea that is novel, good, and useful. It’s a little broader than the Oxford Dictionary’s definition, where it’s just the ability to create, because that doesn’t really say much. You can create something and it’s not very useful or it just won’t work well. Then the novelty is very important in scientific thinking.
Pooling from this wealth of knowledge we store in our brains and making connections between different ideas we have to solve a new problem, or create, write a new novel — that’s what science looks at when we study ‘creativity.’ Just to drive home the point, this is very much a function of the brain. There’s no need to invoke all that folklore into this. It’s our brains doing what they do.
Kelton Reid: How much is memory involved in creativity?
Why Memory Plays Such a Big Part in Writing
Michael Grybko: That’s really the root of it. If you want to talk about creativity, it involves us using knowledge we’ve already gained and applying it in a situation that we may be unfamiliar with to resolve an issue or create something, make something. That’s a really good point. Memory is really key here.
You can’t really talk about creativity without talking about memory and how we remember things, and how we use that knowledge in our everyday lives to get through the world, get through our days, and do all the tasks we do. It’s a good starting point to just review memory and how do we get knowledge, how do we remember things, and how do we store this information. This is a huge field in and of itself. There’s just volumes of literature out there on this. It’s very active. You’ll get a good idea just how the brain processes information.
Kelton Reid: Cool.
Michael Grybko: Yeah. We go through our day-to-day lives, and we’re constantly bombarded by information. I think we take this for granted a lot of times. All the sights, sounds, smells — all the sensory input, it’s just picked up by the different sensory systems, ears, eyes, what have you. All this information is converted into electrical chemical signals. This is the language of the brain, these electrical chemical signals.
We’re taking all this real-world input and turning it into a signal that the brain can use. This is called ‘encoding,’ this first step. We’re just encoding all this information, just like a computer code. You need to type things into a computer a certain way so it’ll work. The information about the world we live in gets transferred in these electrical chemical signals, so our brain can use them. That’s the first part of memory, just gathering information and encoding it.
Then that turns into short-term memory. Short-term memory really is important for creativity. Short-term memory would be like if your phone rings and you’re drinking a cup of coffee, put down your cup of coffee, and then answer your phone. Then later you hang up your phone, you remember where your cup of coffee was. You remember that.
Kelton Reid: I always remember where my cup of coffee is.
Michael Grybko: You have a short-term memory problem, Kelton.
Kelton Reid: Wait, what?
Michael Grybko: Don’t worry, it won’t affect your creativity.
Kelton Reid: OK, good.
Don’t Take Your Typing Skills for Granted
Michael Grybko: As you can see, that’s really not important — to store that information long term. A week from now it’s not important to remember where you put that cup of coffee down today to pick up your phone. As we do things over and over again, through repetition, short-term memories can turn into long-term memory.
Repetition is one way. Another thing is the weight of a situation. If something is very important, you put that cup of coffee down and then you knock it over and it spills on some important paperwork, a week from now, you may remember where you put that cup of coffee down.
Through various mechanisms, we build long-term memories. ‘Consolidation’ is the word for it. It involves the brain moving signals into different areas, these electrical chemical signals. Then neurons take on certain patterns, spatial and temporal patterns. Those certain neurons will fire at certain rates. That’s long-term memory. There’s an actual biochemical change going on in our brains that represents the world we live in.
It’s important to point out, too, there’s different kinds of long-term memory. Two important ones are this procedural memory and then declarative memory. Procedural is referred to as ‘motor memory,’ but it doesn’t necessarily just have to be motor skills. It can be something like the route you take from home to the grocery store. Over time, you’re not thinking about it too much. You can do it without involving a lot of thought.
Kelton Reid: Do you think that could include something like typing?
Michael Grybko: Yes, that’s definitely procedural. Yeah, there’s a lot of tasks that we do every day. Procedural memory is very important for us surviving in the world. A lot of things we take for granted — all these day-to-day tasks — actually take a long time to develop skills. There’s a lot of memory involved.
Where Creative Ideas Come From
Michael Grybko: The declarative memory, that’s things like facts and knowledge. This is what we really draw on when we want to be creative — this information we have stored about places and events. This is where we start linking these different neural networks to be creative. This is our pool of information. This is where our ideas are coming from, this declarative memory.
Basically, the final part of the memory process is the recall process. This is when we draw on these memories and apply them to a current situation. I think the root of creativity lies in the recall phase and how we access these neural networks to utilize the information they code for. One could postulate that the act of being creative involves recognizing connections between loosely associated items in the world that surround us, that this would be represented at the neuronal level by activating weakly associated neuronal networks.
Kelton Reid: That’s a lot to take in.
Michael Grybko: Yeah, it is.
Kelton Reid: It seems like what you’re getting at is that the root of creativity is a combination of all of these different sets of processes that we take for granted. That procedural, remembering how to type, versus the other knowledge portion.
Michael Grybko: Declarative, or knowledge.
Kelton Reid: Combining that with typing something intelligent into a Word doc lies at the root of combining all of these processes.
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Can You Teach an Old Writer New Tricks?
Kelton Reid: I guess my final question is, and I know that it seems like you all on the neuroscience side are learning more and more about the brain and neuroplasticity and the idea of can you teach an old dog new tricks, I guess is my question. In other words, can creativity be taught later in life, or can it be improved? Can it be learned?
Michael Grybko: These are all really good questions. Hard to answer, but I think yes.
Kelton Reid: I like that answer. I asked you like 20 questions, I apologize.
Why Staying Curious Is So Important to Creativity
Michael Grybko: This idea that we can improve creativity is a hard question to prove, but there is some evidence out there. Just the nature of the brain, there’s the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. You see that over and over again in learning and memory — where it’s really important to keep the brain active. Creativity can be improved upon. The more you try out new things, the more skills you develop, the more creative you’ll become.
There’s this important aspect of creativity that I was hinting at it in declarative memory. We have these thoughts in our head that are represented by these biochemical signals, these electrochemical signals causing these neural networks to fire in certain ways. This firing translates to a certain memory. What’s important is to just build up your knowledge base. Basically, the more information you have in your head, the more creative you’ll be — the bigger the pool of ideas you have to draw from.
Kelton Reid: Keep the muscles limber, in other words.
Michael Grybko: Yeah, keep them limber, and keep building them. Keep reading and trying new things and new experiences.
Kelton Reid: I just did an interview with Demian Farnworth, and his main tip, at least for writers, was to stay curious, to keep learning new things. I want to get to an article really quick that probably draws on that from The New York Times. This idea that the writer can be compared to a professional athlete. The title of the article is This Is Your Brain on Writing. I totally geek out on stuff like that.
I’m always curious how far are they stretching this research to make this claim that — I’ll just pull out a quote — “A novelist scrolling way in a notebook in seclusion may not seem to have much in common with an NBA player doing a reverse layup on a basketball court before a screaming crowd, but if you could peer inside their heads, you might see some striking similarities in how their brains were churning.” Of course I want to ask you about something like this. When a writer sees this, I think they’re just like, “Yeah, that’s awesome. We’re like pro athletes in our brains.” How speculative is this?
Are Prolific Writers Like Pro Athletes?
Michael Grybko: I think it’s stretching the original research a bit, yeah. I think this is Erhard et al. — this is a group in Germany — the original article came from. It’s interesting. They came up with this new paradigm to study creative writing and employing this MRI technique while people are engaging in writing. MRI is a brain imaging technique where you measure the amount of blood flowing through a particular area of the brain. We infer brain activity with the amount of blood, if there’s an increase in blood flow in a certain area in the brain. This is a widely used technique.
There’s some drawbacks to it, certainly, because, first of all, it’s not directly measuring neuronal activity. It’s looking at blood flow. Then it’s not super accurate. You can tell an area of the brain that’s getting active, but if there’s subtle changes within that area, it’s hard to detect. Then also, it’s a big machine, and you have to lay still. Whatever part of the body, in this case the head, is being imaged has to remain still the whole time.
Right off the bat, you can understand it would be impossible to compare a basketball player with a writer. I’m terrible at basketball to begin with, but I can’t imagine trying to shoot a basketball and having an MRI done at the same time, where you can’t move your head.
Kelton Reid: It sounds improbable.
Michael Grybko: Yeah, it’s hard to make a correlation. What they found, the group in Germany found, what was striking, is this particular area called the caudate nucleus was active during writing. The correlation is made based on this — because this is responsible for some of these procedural memories, what we were talking about before. This is an area that’s active during those times. As we do certain skills that we all have over and over and over again, we just become more and more proficient.
As that proficiency increases, we see this area of the brain becoming active, whether that’s typing, playing piano, shooting a basketball, or in this case, writing. This area of the brain was becoming active when they measured creative writers doing their thing during an MRI. If that makes them like a basketball player, I won’t quite say that.
Why ‘Write What You Know’ Is Good Advice
Kelton Reid: Yeah, but maybe coming back to that ‘use it or lose it.’ I hear so many writers talk about why writing every day is important, and of course, research, research, research. The more you put in there, ideally the more creative you’re going to be. That old other saying of ‘write what you know’ really probably is pretty accurate.
Because if you’re researching a topic sort trying to write, say, a historical novel that requires quite a bit of research, it’s probably not going to at least tell the story you want to tell or affect people in the way that you would prefer if you’re not actually doing a lot of research and putting that information in there so that you can draw from that and create something fresh, new, and maybe even surprising.
Michael Grybko: Right. Then also just practicing being creative. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a hard thing to quantify. There’s this aspect of creativity — it gets back to the originality aspect that I was talking about earlier. Whether you’re solving a problem or coming up with a new idea, really what creative solutions or ideas require us to access this information we have stored in our brain that’s represented in these neural networks and to apply it. This may involve making associations between objects or things that may not be obvious to other people. That’s where the creativity comes in. It’s coming up with a novel idea or something that maybe other people wouldn’t see.
What we’re linking in the brain — there’s probably a correlation here — where this information we have stored in our brains, we’re making connections on a synaptic level, on a neuronal level. We’re bringing these two different memories that were stored — and they aren’t too well-correlated or associated — and we’re somehow, creative individuals are bringing these together on a neuronal level.
Now, these two, what used to be discrete neural networks, are starting to overlap and starting to communicate with one another. It’s an interesting concept, but I think that takes practice. We can see this in something like new synapses forming and bridging the gap between these new networks could be what’s happening here. Could be the root of creativity in the brain.
Kelton Reid: Wow, I love it. If I could come up with one takeaway for writers, what would you say? Would it be practice, practice, practice, or read more?
Michael Grybko: Both.
Kelton Reid: Watch less television?
Michael Grybko: Watch good television.
Kelton Reid: Watch good TV, thank you.
Michael Grybko: Watch creative TV. Do all that. Keep writing. I think it’s really important for everyone — keep trying new things and new challenges.
Kelton Reid: Keep learning.
Michael Grybko: Yeah, keep things original. Keep putting more information into your heads. The bigger the pool of ideas you have, the more opportunities that you’ll have to be creative, the more fuel you’ll be adding to the fire.
Kelton Reid: Alright. My final question to you is, should I stop saying that incantation of the Muses before my writing session?
Michael Grybko: No, continue.
Kelton Reid: OK, good.
Michael Grybko: Does it work for you?
Kelton Reid: I have no idea.
Michael Grybko: Well, we’ll stick you in an MRI machine.
Kelton Reid: OK. We need to research it. Michael, thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming on and talking about the writer’s brain.
Michael Grybko: This was fun.
Kelton Reid: Actually, would love you to come back and talk about a couple other issues.
Michael Grybko: Personal issues or …?
Kelton Reid: No.
Michael Grybko: OK.
Kelton Reid: I’d love for you to come back on the show and talk about storytelling and empathy at some point.
Michael Grybko: Yes. Empathy’s a very exciting field, too. A lot to say on that one, too.
Kelton Reid: OK, cool. Thank you so much.
Michael Grybko: Awesome. This was fun. Thank you for having me.
Kelton Reid: Stay curious my friends. Thanks for joining me for a glimpse into the workings of the writer’s brain. I am going to go watch an episode of Mad Men. For more episodes of The Writer Files or to leave us a comment or a question, drop by Writerfiles.FM.