Hacking the Writer's Brain
What is it we need to become a good writer?
We know that athletes need physical prowess and practice in their sport. Runners run and swimmers swim; they need good lung-capacity, a regular and deep breathing rhythm, and the muscles to maintain their stroke.
What's your equivalent of that physical prowess? Is it fast fingers? Touch typing skills? Or is it about the speed you process information and increase creativity?
Of course, we know instinctively that the brain is responsible for our writing inspiration, but do we realize the complexity of the brain-body connection? To support the mental activity we need to fuel the physcial.
The brain doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It's one thing to read, to learn, or to do mental exercise. But your brain needs physical activity as well for a creative boost, to maximize its potential and train your 'writing muscles'.
Your body is your brain.
The Mind-Body Connection
Descartes, the so-called, father of modern philosophy, proposed that the mind and the body were separate -- the theory of dualism.
Modern medical science shows us that the opposite is in fact true. According to Oakley Ray of Vanderbilt University, quoted here,
There is no real division between mind and body because of networks of communication that exist between the brain and neurological, endocrine and immune systems.
We writers know this -- whether it's a 'gut feeling' about something, or the endorphins from that long afternoon run stimulating your creative brain -- the mind body connection is irrefutable. We don't have to wait for science to confirm it.
But what can we do to take advantage of brain-stimulating activities right now? Well, we have nine simple hacks to get you started...
Wait, you might say, in what way is sleeping being active? Well, maybe it's not activity, but, in Psychology Today, Joanne Cantor discusses a study that links sleep and creativity. 'Sleeping on a problem' is a problem-solving strategy, because it allows our unconscious brain to do the processing behind the scenes that allows us to have insights when we're awake.
To determine sleep needs, researchers from Harvard’s Division of Sleep Medicine recommend paying attention to your sleepiness, keeping a sleep diary, and taking a sleep vacation.
These are all methods of self-monitoring, a form of mindfulness you can use to adjust your sleep habits based on what you observe about your day and how much sleep you had the night before.
2. A Simple Walk
A study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that aerobic exercise, in the form of walking, increased the size of the hippocampus (the part of our brain responsible for memory).
Participants simply walked around a track for 40 minutes 3 times a week -- something we could easily replicate before breakfast or in a lunch break. A year later, their memory scores improved more than the control group who stretched without walking.
That combination of movement (increased blood flow) and stimulation from our surroundings seems to boost memory in a way that no other form of exercise does.
3. Go Geocaching
Why Geocaching? (and what even is it??)
Geocaching is the 'global treasure hunt' invented by Oregonian Dave Ulmer in 2000. The ideas is to look for 'treasure' (a book or some interesting items) hidden by other geocachers who leave you with a set of coordinates and a description of the location.
It combines goal-oriented thinking with walking and hiking, usually in stunning locations, and it's a mental and physical adventure that is perfect for writers.
Walking in nature gives you a feeling of well-being and happiness, and helps quiet the portion of your brain associated with brooding.
Geocaching is similar to writing, in that you immerse yourself in the process, and there's a natural flow until you finish.
4. Play Music
Learning to play a musical instrument can, literally, alter your brain, improve your learning and help you remember things. The technical term is neurogenesis -- changing the brain.
It's similar to what happens when we walk -- we use more of the hippocampus -- and increasing the use of the hippocampus impacts learning and memory, essentially by building brain cells.
And there's a further positive effect because playing music also promotes enhanced chemical connectivity — synapses — between the neurons.
No matter what type of writing you do, learning to play an instrument is a great partner activity, especially if you get creative and have some fun with it. The more you explore, the more pathways you open in your brain, and the more creative you will be.
5. Learn a Foreign Language
This solution is intuitive to writers: improve your vocabulary and you’ll improve your brain’s capacity. Research from the University of Santiago de Compostela backs up our intuition: a higher vocabulary strengthens the brain’s cognitive reserve -- which is how much we compensate for the natural age-related deterioration.
As we age, parts of our brain function less well -- that's why we become forgetful with names, for example -- but other parts of our brain take over and compensate. If we extend our vocabulary, in our own language or a foreign language, we are less likely to be cognitively impaired as we age.
6. Tap Into Tech
Oftentimes, apps are meant to make things easier, more convenient for the user. If you’re going to tap into technology anyway, why not use apps that multitask and are strengthening your brain as you use them?
The Positive Intelligence app can teach your brain to be stress-free and perform at its peak. Other brainpower apps, such as Lumosity and CogniFit Brain Fitness, are designed to improve cognitive skills such as memory, concentration, attention, problem solving, and processing speed.
Instead of turning to Facebook in your downtime, why not turn to one of these brain-boosting apps to increase creativity instead?
7. Take a Cooking Class
Cooking is an activity that uses multiple parts of your brain at one time and, as we're finding, anything that stimulates different parts of your brain, improves connections and improves creativity and learning.
Cooking uses the sense of smell, which is linked to emotion, associative learning, and memory centers.
It uses the sense of taste, also evoking emotion, as this links back to smell, and (assuming it's a positive association!) makes you motivated to seek it out.
It also uses the sense of touch which involves two processing pathways in the brain -- one telling us the facts about what we’re touching -- how it feels, whether it's hot, sharp, etc. And a second that activates regions associated with social bonding, pleasure, and pain.
Finally, sight, a highly complex sense is essential to cooking. The neurons associated with what we see take up thirty percent of the cortex -- the outer layer of the brain -- and signals from the visual cortex distribute to multiple — maybe dozens — of higher centers in the brain that help interpret elements of an image.
That's a lot of brain activity, all of which is making you smarter!
For writers, cooking, and learning how to do it well are activities that will improve our attention to detail, our memory, and our social sense.
8. Develop Your Spatial Skills
Geocaching relies on finding a location by its longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates.
If you do the Geocaching, then something to add on immediately after is to try and recreate a map of the route you took to get to the cache. This will really drive home the learning (and more learning means more brain connections which means more creativity).
Give yourself a day, so that you’re don't tap into the immediate memory. And then try to map the route you took with as many specific details as you can remember.
This might not be obvious, but the process will involve creativity. Bringing up those specific memories invokes divergent creative thinking -- the aspect of creativity where you are exploring as many options or avenues as possible.
For some it is the very definition of creativity, and you can hack it by using what you did, as well as what you have yet to do. In other words, people who spent time recalling specific details from a movie were able to excel at coming up with multiple alternative uses for common objects, such as bricks or safety pins.
9. Mix Things Up
Ultimately, increasing your creativity is about changing the way you do things. Brush your teeth with a different hand, take a different route home from work, take a vacation to somewhere you’ve never been and don’t plan the way you normally do. Play games like Sudoku, play word games. Do yoga, take martial arts, try a new sport, go swimming, meditate.
The more variation you incorporate in your routine, the more areas of your brain you use, the more synaptic pathways you’ll forge, and the more you'll be building your creative muscles (or rather brain cells!).
Break the Routine
Whatever you do, doing something different is key.
As a writer you might think that building good habits is key -- and yes, habits are important to getting things done -- but inject a fresh activity into your routine. Even if it’s as simple as talking to a stranger when you just want to get home and do your thing, try it.
Varying activity and engaging your senses in different ways is the spice of the creative, productive, writing life.
Give it a try!
Daniel is a freelance writer and musician from Boise, ID. Daniel's passions are poetry and music, which he believes are the same thing. You can find him on Twitter.