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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.

Brain Basics About Writer’s Block

Joel Canfield asked me to review “the foundations and high-level perspectives about why we struggle with this stuff, and why your excellent solutions work.”

I’m happy to oblige!  Here are the brain basics of writer’s block.

Do You Have What It Takes?

If you’ve ever questioned whether you have enough discipline, will power, ambition or talent to write, if you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to write and why you can come up with so many excuses not to write, let me assure you: Writing resistance is normal.

Resistance is caused by the way the human brain works, not because you’re flawed somehow.

Three Brains In One

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.

Limbic System Takeovers

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 limbic system’s 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, not knowing how to start, initial inertia), and then choose to fight (self-criticism, sabotage) or flee (procrastination, distractions, looking for answers in the fridge, etc.).

Around the Writer’s Block explains this with more detail, elegantly simple drawings and some great stories.

There are, as Joel noted in his request, 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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10 Comments on “Brain Basics About Writer’s Block”

  1. Minnie March 11, 2014 at 7:13 am #

    Thanks for your quality blog post. It features a lot of information I had been searching
    for, I will be coming in the future to hear what you have to say.


  2. Joel D Canfield July 6, 2012 at 12:13 pm #

    Yes! While I love the value of your step-by-step practical how-to stuff, this is what excites me, the science behind it, the “why” stuff.

    Much looking forward to the next episode.



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