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January 29, 2004

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Alice Flaherty has an unerasable desire to write. She has started her fourth book, and is doing research to help explain how the muse comes and goes. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

The brains behind writer's block

New views of the muse

By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office

Alice Flaherty couldn't stop writing. Following the deaths of her premature twin boys, the Harvard Medical School neurologist fell into a hole of grief. But after about 10 days, she awoke one morning with an overwhelming desire to put everything on her mind on paper.

"I was flooded with ideas that I had to write about immediately," she recalls. "I couldn't do anything else for four months."

A year later, the whole sequence repeated itself. Flaherty gave birth prematurely to twin girls. Fortunately, they survived. And again, 10 days after their birth, she was hit with an irresistible urge to write about all the things piling up in her brain. She took medications to slow down, but nothing could stem the urge to pen.

"I still write much more than I did before my pregnancies," Flaherty says. She has published two books, a third is in press, and she has begun a fourth.

The second book, titled "The Midnight Disease" (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), tries to make sense of it all. Depending on how you look at it, the "disease" could be either writing or writer's block. In one case, you can't stop, in the other you can't start.

The notion of muse as a "divine voice" or an inspiration from some ethereal source intrigues Flaherty. But for her, writing, and not being able to write when you want to, come from interactions between and changes in specific areas of the brain. The muse, in other words, is merely a matter of making the right brain connections.

The limbic system, a ring-shaped cluster of cells deep in the brain, provides the emotion push. Many nerve fibers connect it to the temporal lobes, areas behind the ears that understand words and give rise to ideas. Finally, the frontal lobe, behind your forehead, serves as a critical organizer and editor, penciling out bad phrases and ideas.

Testing for creativity

"It's likely that writing and other creative work involve a push-pull interaction between the frontal and temporal lobes," Flaherty speculates. If the temporal lobe activity holds sway, an aspiring scribe may turn out 600 logorrheic pages. If the temporal lobes are restrained by frontal lobe changes, the result might be pinched and timid.

Most academics regard the study of creativity as what Flaherty calls "intellectually unhygienic." So, she is doing it herself.

She and Shelley Carson, a psychologist at Harvard, have tried using light to break writing blocks and prod creativity. As autumn wears on, many people experience a dip in productivity and originality, not dissimilar to the gloomy seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that depresses some people when the days get darker and colder. SAD can be relieved by sitting in front of light boxes that provide an indoor equivalent of a sunny day. Flaherty and Carson have begun trying to up the creativity of college students with the same treatment.

In planning are more cerebral tests that would rely on brain scans to show actual differences in brain activity when the muse is rampant and when it hits a wall. If Flaherty's theory is correct, brain cells in the temporal and frontal lobes should crackle with different patterns of activity.

Another technique that may influence as well as map the paths of creative activity involves passing a magnetic wand over the heads of people. Called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), it has increased creativity when applied to the frontal lobes in preliminary studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

"Such testing should give us information, never available before, about what goes on in the brain during creativity, and what doesn't go on when it's blocked." Flaherty notes.

Help for the brain

The unstoppable drive to write (or produce in other media), called hypergraphia, can be triggered by temporal lobe epilepsy, mania, and other mood disorders. Dostoevsky and van Gogh are examples. The late Norman Geschwind, a Harvard expert on hypergraphia, referred to such talents as a valuable result from a brain defect.

But not all hypergraphics are talented. Some of them may have nothing inside worth coming out. And unless the sides and front of the brain boast a good relationship, frenzied writing or painting can be of trash-bin quality, or can be self-edited out of existence.

How about helping the brain along with some sort of electric stimulation, finding the best brain patterns to excite the muse and feeding them into the brain from outside? It's been done, although accidentally. Flaherty describes one of her patients, a well-educated 37-year-old woman who had wires surgically implanted in her frontal lobes to control the tics of Tourette's syndrome. At certain current settings, the woman reported increased creativity and productivity in both her professional and personal activities. Her boss asked her what they had put in her head, and how he could get one.

What about the possibility of using such gizmos to make normal people more creative? Flaherty calls the idea "wildly speculative." "My patient was already creative," Flaherty points out. "The (wire) stimulators did not cause it; they merely seemed to facilitate it. And undergoing the required surgery is risky." However, she did not rule out the possibility of less invasive ways to enliven the muse, or remove blocks in its path, sometime in the future.

For a few creative people, drugs have opened the door to inspired hypergraphia. Robert Louis Stevenson reportedly penned "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," a 6,000-word book in six days, with the help of cocaine. Pain, suffering, and frustration also stimulate floods of words and images. "People may pour out their feelings as a cry for help," Flaherty notes. "Many of my patients start writing as a response to their illnesses."

What about people who believe they have something to say but can't get it out? Traditional remedies like alcohol, or sticking to the task even when nothing is flowing are not going to break the block. "Repeatedly failing at the same attempt is probably a frontal lobe malfunction that makes it hard for someone to give up a faulty strategy," Flaherty says. "This condition is best treated by taking a break." John Keats, the English poet, treated his writer's block by stopping and getting dressed in his best clothes.

"Hypergraphia stems from an internal drive, from a love of the work, not from external influences like money, fame, or spirituality," Flaherty insists. "That's true of bad as well as good writing.

"I feel joy when I'm writing well," she continues, smiling. "I have my bad days, and I'm terrified of writer's block. But in the end, the joy of finding even one good verb makes it all worthwhile."

Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College