Musings on the Craft of Writing

►The Magic of the Mind, Part 1: SDN

In 1890 William James (philosopher/psychologist) posited that our thoughts and experiences shape our brains.  Of course, we didn’t even have the equipment to verify that on a cadaver’s brain, let alone on a living one.  But we finally do, and this research on our brains has yielded extraordinary findings.

~ Jill B Taylor ~

~ Jill B Taylor ~

Neuroscientists have dubbed this ‘Neuroplasticity’ (and the subsequent “Self-Directed Neuroplasticity” or “SDN”).  The quickie version on SDN: Humans can volitionally rewire their brains to help change thought/behavior patterns, even decades-long such patterns (bad habits, OCD, addiction, crippling depression), and even the most profound of changes as in the extraordinary stroke-recovery case of Jill B Taylor.

I’m slow to embrace new “findings” since they are often mere constructs floating in the ether (which are often discounted 3 years later), but in the case of SDN, we have concrete evidence of the brain physically changing via this practice (which, trumps both the testimony of subjects’ emotional states and their reported behavioral changes).  There is a ton of data online available for us, and multiple books.  I have only read one book (quite randomly) by Schwartz & Gladding, You are Not your Brain.

[Unfortunately, I cannot (in good conscience) recommend it, for it is written in that painfully annoying “self-help” style. IE, “Here’s Sally… Sally has this problem.  Sally is sad…”  OK, I’m exaggerating, but it was in that ballpark.  And to be fair, Schwartz has other books which may be better.]

But the quick, bottom line for (SDN) is this:

1)      Our brains form physical “grooves,” largely by the experiences and messages given to us by those around us (parents, usually), starting at a very young age.

  1. These grooves are ruts on a dirt road.  The first wagon which drove on that smooth ground started a precedent for the next wagon.  After a few dozen wagons rolled down that road it became a no-brainer (pun-unashamedly-intended) as to where the next wagon would go.

2)      Brain-grooves (and neurochemical levels) make the type of thinking which is congruent with those grooves easy and “natural” for us.  We “go with the flow” of our established thinking patterns (and the subsequent accompanying habits).

  1.  [This is a neutral fact within itself; the type of message which accompanies that groove determines its benevolence/malevolence in our lives.]

3)      We therefore repeat those types of messages to ourselves, consciously or not (from a young age), which further solidifies the depth and power of the brain-grooves.

And here’s the extraordinary application part:

4)      Neuroscientists discovered that we can invert that process: By forcing ourselves to tell ourselves new (in this case, desired) facts about ourselves, we can actually change our brain-grooves (& chemical releases).  We take the messages concerning that particular rut in our head, and alter them.

So, the young child who is told by her parents that she “will never do anything good with her life,” will likely believe it.  Her brain forms that rut, which (even if the assholes who told her that stop saying it), she will likely deepen because it’s now a self-reinforcing mental habit.  For the rest of her life, it’s highly likely that she will believe and perpetuate that lie.

But SDN has demonstrated that if she begins the process of actively contradicting (Schwartz and others suggest this “4 Steps” method) the horseshit shoveled by her parents, that she can gradually smooth over those ruts in the road and make new grooves which make her feel successful, strong, accomplished, etc..

This is fantastic news for our writing as well.  The application of this data tells us that we can reshape our brain patterns to change our bad writing habits, writer’s block, self-defeating emotions/self-talk, etc.

So many writers I’ve talked with over the years suffer from many of the same self-defeating demons: We have the haunting notion that we’re just deluding ourselves, that we’re incapable of becoming skilled writers, that our concepts are (and will always be) trite.  On the practical level, many of us are carrying around the notion that we have to be unproductive, that we can only get a few hours of real work done per day/week.  All of this is changeable.


I don’t honestly know the extent of the power of SDN.  (Of course I would love to believe that there’s a potion I can drink to make me a perfect writing-machine, but I’m pretty damned skeptical.)  Regardless, I can attest to the transformative power of using SDN for many areas of my life, especially regarding my life as a writer (and I have the science to confirm that I’m not simply deluding myself).

I have found the method that most call “self-programming” — making (short, at first) lists of all of the things that I want to be true about myself, and then state them as if they are true right now.  I do this each day and night.  By using SDN, the frequency/weight of my writer’s block is diminished, as is my general angst about being a writer.  I have conditioned myself to calm myself (which is a serious part of creativity and productivity) with it.  Perhaps most importantly, SDN has been a large part of ridding myself of chronic depression, which had haunted me from my early teen years, lasting until around 3 years ago.

These studies have been the seed for many other emerging studies and claims. Research and experiment on yourself.  See what happens.

(And see Part Two.)


7 responses

  1. As one previous sufferer to another, it’s great to hear you have found a way around your depression . I suspect that in many cases, writing is a very positive help – and that having been in that dark space often provides that particular writer with an unusual and interesting take on the world..

    November 30, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    • Yes, I suppose that I have gained a lot of insight from my years being depressed, and it does enrich my writing. But, am thrilled to remain free of it.

      November 30, 2013 at 7:41 pm

  2. Very informative, thank you for sharing…

    November 30, 2013 at 5:20 pm

  3. Very intriguing article D.!

    November 30, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    • Oh I feel repetitive because you used the same word above….well I am going to try to reprogram myself now.

      November 30, 2013 at 9:35 pm

  4. Pingback: Magic of the Mind, P2: Willpower | Daniel Ionson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s