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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.

Forget Plot Outlines! Is Your Habenula NaNoWriMo Ready?

(NOTE: Not even considering NaNoWriMo? Keep reading; this stuff applies to any writer.)

Of course, knowing who your characters are, what they want, what they need and what stands in their way is important, but if your habenula isn’t firing right, NaNoWriMo is going to be a month-long lesson in frustration.

To be precise, I should say if the right part of your habenula isn’t firing.

What Writers Need to Know about Their Habenula

The habenula is a small part of the limbic system, close to the thalamus. The differences between the lateral and medial parts of the habenula and their interactions with neurotransmitters and other areas of the brain are complex. (Read more…)

Because we’re writers, not neuroscientists, what we need to know is that the medial habenula serves as a metaphorical gas pedal for motivation, while the lateral habenula puts the brakes on motivation.

The medial habenula responds to rewards by stimulating the release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that leaves us with more energy, greater ability to concentrate and more willing to try. The medial habenula is a significant part of the pleasure system that tells us “Go! Do that again.”

The lateral habenula, on the other hand, inhibits dopamine when it anticipates failure (often based on previous similar attempts that failed), perceives punishment or receives a smaller-than-expected reward. Less dopamine reduces energy and our ability to focus and makes us less willing to try. The lateral habenula tells us “Don’t go! Avoid that.”

From a survival standpoint, it makes absolute sense. As Dr. Kyra Bobinet writes in “The Power of Process” in Experience Life:

“This useful tool is thought to keep us from wasting our time (or endangering ourselves) by repeating unsuccessful behaviors. When we measure goals in terms of success or failure, and then don’t ‘succeed,’ the habenula kills our incentive to give things another go. This keeps a lot of dieters, would-be novelists, and aspiring entrepreneurs stuck at square one.”

Habenula and NaNoWriMo

Deciding to write a novel (or at least 50,000 words) in 30 days as thousands of other writers are doing the same thing can be exciting. You’ll find encouragement and camaraderie in online forums and local in-person NaNo-releated events.

The NaNoWriMo website claims: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Even if you end the month 49,000 words short, that’s 1,000 words you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Unfortunately, it’s NOT that simple.

As Dr. Kyra Bobinet observes:

“But what most of us don’t realize is that setting ambitious behavior-change goals often backfires, diminishing our chances of success in the future. What I’ve learned as a behavior scientist is that reaching for certain targets can actually shut down motivation and suck joy out of our lives.”

Setting goals that are too big and too far in the future alert the lateral habenula to the potential for failure and cause it to slam the brakes on your writing motivation.

Of course, “too big” and “too far” are subjective, but unless you’ve repeatedly and successfully written 50,000 words in 30 days before, NaNoWriMo will in all likelihood seem dangerous enough to trigger your lateral habenula.

Remember your conscious mind is rarely aware of what the limbic system – including the habenula – is doing. So you may think you’re excited and looking forward to NaNo, but your habenula might trigger an undercurrent of other emotions and reduce your energy and focus.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at what you can do to keep your foot on the gas (engage your medial habenula) and off the brake (quiet your lateral habenula) whether you’re doing NaNo or not.


Christophe D. Proulx, Okihide Hikosaka, and Roberto Malinow, “Reward Processing by the Lateral Habenula in Normal and Depressive Behaviors,” from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4305435/ accessed January 2016.

Kyra Bobinet, “The Power of Process,” January/February 2016, Experience Life, from https://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-process/ accessed January 2016.

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  1. Are You Spinning In a Stress Spiral of Death? | Bane of Your Resistance - May 26, 2018

    […] failure triggers the lateral habenula, which reduces our energy and ability to focus and makes us less willing to […]


  2. Why 50,000 Is Not the Magic #NaNoWriMo Number | Bane of Your Resistance - October 27, 2017

    […] those of us who don’t write a novel a month on a regular basis, that snarling lion is our lateral habenula growling at the over-optimistic Bullwinkle part of our brain, “I’m going to do what? […]


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