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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.

Writer See, Writer Do

monkey see writers blockWhy is it so much easier to write in a class than when you’re on your own at home?

If you are 50% more likely to be overweight if your friends are overweight, are you 50% more likely to consistently show up for your writing if the others in your writer’s group or class do?

The answers lie in your mirror neurons, aka your “monkey see, monkey do neurons.” If you throw a ball, a collection of sensory and motor neurons fire in your brain. A related collection of sensory and motor neurons fire when you merely watch someone throw a ball.

These mirror neurons allow us to learn by observing. In some parts of the brain, mentally rehearsing what you’re going to do is the same as doing it. [But not in all parts of the brain and body; remember the “monkey do” part of the expression. You can’t just watch someone else working out and get stronger for example; you have to use the mirror neurons to motivate you to take action.]

Mirror neurons have been discovered near the language centers of the brain, which may prove to be essential in our ability to acquire language. We can assume that mirror neurons are at least part of what’s going on when writers get a boost from writing in a group.

Mirror neurons may be the source of the benefits writers get from reading and studying good writing. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

Reading excellent literature can be a mental rehearsal that activates your mirror neurons and prepares you for your own writing sessions. Be careful, though, reading junk probably makes you more likely to write junk.

Monkey Do, Monkey See Flipside

When you’ve practiced what you’re seeing, you get more benefit from observing others. Researchers compared the mirror neurons of ordinary people with those of professionally trained dancers while both groups observed a dance performance. The pros had significantly more mirror neurons firing. And more mirror neurons fired when the dancers watched dance moves they had practiced than when they watched moves they hadn’t learned.

writers mirror

Students in my Enter the Flow classes where we do a lot of in-class writing frequently tell me it’s easier for them to write in class and that they get more out of the in-class writing sessions than they do when they’re writing alone. Just being with other writers writing will get your writing neurons firing.

While in-class writing sessions are often easier and more productive than students’ solo writing, writing alone becomes easier and more productive than it was before the class. This ease and productivity boost typically continue after the class ends.

Choose Your Mirrors Wisely

mirrorNeuron-DalaiLamaMirror neurons are the foundation of empathy – we feel what we observe others feeling. So being with other writers who are excited about their writing will make you more excited about your writing.

Conversely spending time “Debbie Downers”  writers who are discouraged and giving in to their resistance will leave you feeling discouraged and more likely to abandon your writing.

Be choosy about who you spend time with – be choosy about whose neurons you want to mirror. The next post will explore questions to ask when deciding what groups of writers you want for your mirrors. 

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  1. Finding a Writer’s Group that Really Works | The Bane of Your Resistance - July 25, 2014

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  2. Does Your Writer’s Group Contribute to Writer’s Block and Resistance? | The Bane of Your Resistance - July 8, 2014

    […] previous post (Writer See, Writer Do) highlights the power of mirror neurons. This is why being part of an effective writer’s […]


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