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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Neurology of Resistance: Limbic System vs. Cerebral Cortex

brain canstockphoto8956548 (2)“Before this class, I thought there was something wrong with me – that I must not really want to be a writer since I wasn’t writing. Now I know there’s neurological and psychological reasons for it and, even better, there are solutions! I’ve written more in the past few weeks than I did in the six months prior to taking this class.” 

 Student evaluation from the Around the Writer’s Block class.

If you’ve ever wondered if there’s something wrong with you because it’s so hard to write sometimes, if you’ve ever wondered why you can come up with so many excuses not to write, if you ever thought you didn’t want it enough or that you didn’t have enough discipline, will power, ambition or talent, let me assure you: Writing resistance is normal. Resistance is caused by the way the human brain works, not because you’re flawed.

The human brain is actually three brains in one: the brain stem (aka the reptile or lizard brain), the limbic system (aka the mammal or leopard brain) and the cerebral cortex (aka the human or learning brain). Your desire, commitment and ability to write all reside in your cerebral cortex. As long as your cortex is in charge, you’re good to go as a writer.

But, when you’re threatened or stressed, a structure in the brain stem called the Reticular Activating System (RAS) shifts control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system, effectively shutting off the cortex’s ability for nuanced, innovative thinking and sophisticated analysis. You’re still conscious, you can still speak and calculate, so you usually don’t know that the cortex is offline, but what you say and how you act is based on the fight-or-flight instinct and previous training.

This limbic system takeover cancels the urge and intention to write. Even if you can force some words onto the page while your limbic system is in charge, you can’t write as creatively and effectively as you can when your cerebral cortex is in charge. And if that’s not bad enough, the cortex does a very poor job of recognizing when it’s not in charge, which leaves you feeling confused, embarrassed and guilty about your resistance.

The many forms of resistance are all behaviors caused by the limbic system’s instinct to first freeze (writer’s block, initial inertia), and then choose to fight (self-criticism, sabotage) or flee (procrastination, distractions, looking for answers in the fridge, etc.).

There are, as the opening quote promised, solutions. In the next post, I’ll tell you how to get your RAS to switch your cerebral cortex back online so you can write again.

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31 Comments on “Neurology of Resistance: Limbic System vs. Cerebral Cortex”

  1. tamara November 21, 2016 at 5:09 pm #

    This should also work stability after tramatic events then shouldn’t it.


    • rosannebane November 22, 2016 at 9:54 am #

      Hi Tamara, Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure I understand your question; could you rephrase it?


  2. The Uncertain Scribe April 11, 2016 at 10:45 am #

    This article is so informative and helpful – thank you! I’ve been fighting against resistance for months now (ever since I decided to write a novel), and I’ve been feeling so ashamed of myself.


    • rosannebane April 11, 2016 at 4:55 pm #

      Hi Uncertain, there’s nothing to feel ashamed about. Writing a novel is a HUGE undertaking and while filled with joy and satisfaction, the route is challenging so it’s not at all surprising that you (like most other writers) experience resistance. The point is not to never experience resistance, it’s to know how to respond effectively to resistance. You’re already making progress just by identifying it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Uncertain Scribe April 11, 2016 at 5:05 pm #

        Thank you, Rosanne, that’s very encouraging! Knowing the solution is to RELAX is the key I’ve been looking for… The “pull your socks up and get on with it” sergeant major approach has only ever made me feel more scared and hopeless, and lead to less productivity. But when I read this I knew it would help me.


  3. Anonymous December 11, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

    Thank you so much for this piece of info! I am writing a research essay, and your article is the missing link that I needed to fully synthesize all my sources.


    • rosannebane December 12, 2014 at 8:47 am #

      You’re welcome. I’m always gratified to hear my posts help other writers.


  4. move to hawaii for free August 25, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    Heya i’m for the first time here. I came across this
    board and I find It really useful & it helped me out much.
    I hope to give something back and help others like you helped me.


  5. Reagan July 4, 2014 at 4:51 am #

    I have been browsing online more than three hours these days, but I never discovered any interesting article like yours.

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  6. Cassandra Montano November 18, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

    Hi! I find this very interesting! I’m working on a project that ties right in to this but I’m having a had time tracking down other sources to confirm your claim that the “Reticular Activating System (RAS) shifts control from the cerebral cortex to the limbic system, effectively shutting off the cortex…”. Could I ask for your sources of this information? Thank you so much!


    • rosannebane November 19, 2013 at 8:38 am #

      Hi Cassandra,
      My two main sources about the RAS and what I call limbic system takeovers are: Pierce J. Howard’s The Owner’s Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research (Austin, TX: Bard Press), pg. 45-47 and Joseph LeDoux’s The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinings of Emotional Life (New York: Touchstone, 1996) pg. 161-167.


  7. Terry September 8, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    Hello there! This is my first visit to your site!
    We are a team of volunteers and starting a brand new project in a community in
    the same niche. Your blog provided us beneficial information to work on.
    You have carried out a fantastic job!


    • rosannebane September 10, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      Thanks Terry! I’m glad to be of assistance. What’s your project? Let me know if you want to share guest posts.


  8. types of probiotics August 29, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    I am really enjoying the theme/design of your weblog.

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    • rosannebane August 29, 2013 at 11:12 pm #

      Sorry I can’t help you with that question. I’d try the support folks at your blog host (WordPress support has been very responsive for me.)


  9. Karen Sorel May 18, 2009 at 3:45 pm #


    Thanks for the reminder and boost. It reminds me of the great job you did with coaching when I lived in the Twin Cities. Now in Albuquerque it’s gret to have the moral support. I have an interim between jobs right now, so have a little more time to dig into creativity.



    • rosannebane May 18, 2009 at 5:19 pm #

      What neat synchronicty – I was just thinking about you last week and wondering what you’re up to. It’s good to hear you’re still creating! What’s your current passion?


  10. Fay May 6, 2009 at 9:18 pm #

    This is really interesting. I can’t wait for your next post. I just take the words “writing” and substitute “painting”. You are really helping me. Thanks. Relatives here this week but Bob is gone the following week so maybe I will really get my paints out. I love the graphics.


    • rosannebane May 9, 2009 at 3:46 am #

      Thanks Fay! It good to know the blog helps other artists as well as writers.


  11. Joni Bonnell May 6, 2009 at 12:45 pm #

    I feel a million pounds lighter! I have been wndering around beating myself up for not being able to write. Now I see that with all of the stresses in my life lately, there actually is a reason for my blockage.

    Please write the next post with the solutions!

    I am looking forward to taking a class of yours at the Loft-Sarah Tieck and others speak very highly of your teaching skills!

    Please write next post! I need help!


    • rosannebane May 6, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

      I’m delighted you’re so eager for the next post. It’s in the works and will be posted soon. In the meantime, you might want to take a look at a recent issue of my Imagination InkLinks creativity newsletter on relaxation tips that re-engage the cortex.


  12. rosannebane November 8, 2010 at 10:15 am #

    Thanks for listing BaneOfYourResistance as one of the 5 Blogs No Writer Should Miss!
    If anyone is curious about the other 4 blogs no writer should miss, go to http://blog.writanon.com/2010/11/08/5-blogs-no-writer-should-miss/



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