The NY Times Science section recently discussed a study by German scientists, in which writers were hooked up to a scanner which could measure their brain activity as they scribbled. The subject would lie on his or her back with a helmet of machinery over their heads, and their writing arm would be propped up on a little stack of pillows, while they wrote short fiction on a sort of easel. From what I could tell, the process resembled writing with your head inside a microwave oven, although I did like the pillows.
The study covered both non-professional writers and students in a highly competitive creative writing program. The scientists concluded that, “Deep inside the brains of experienced writers, a region called the caudate nucleus became active. In the novices, the caudate nucleus was quiet.” This area of the brain, the scientists decided, “plays an essential role in the skill that comes with practice, including activities like board games.”
First off, I have a few questions:
Were the subjects in this study allowed to eat Ruffles Reduced Fat Potato Chips With Sea Salt out of the bag while they wrote?
Did any of the subjects scrawl the words “Get that thing off my head” over and over again?
After the study was over, did the subjects from the highly competitive creative writing program immediately demand to critique each others’ brain waves? Did they say things like, “Oh look, even Gunter’s brain waves are derivative” or “Helga’s brain waves are always only about her, and her mother.”
The study was mostly a waste of time and resources, because if the scientists had contacted me, I could tell them precisely what goes on deep within any writer’s caudate nucleus. Here’s what all writers are thinking, during the creative process:
“I’ve almost finished a whole paragraph, I don’t want to wear myself out.”
“I wonder what Jonathan Franzen is doing right now? I wonder how much his advance is for his next book?”
“I should go work out, so that when I come back I’ll have a fresh perspective and I can really get some work done.”
“I should go eat something, because I know that Melville said he couldn’t write a word if he had low blood sugar.”
“I should take a nap, because maybe an idea for a bestseller, or at least a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, will come to me in a dream.”
“If I fall asleep right now, will this machine think I’m dead, or just untalented?”
“Maybe I should write a book about a writer who’s hooked up to a machine. Which turns him into a vampire.”
“Why can’t they make a machine that would do the actual writing for me? Does Danielle Steele have a machine like that?”
“Writing is really hard. I wish I was a coal miner. Coal miners never have to come up with a killer opening sentence.”
“What if there’s a catastrophic mechanical accident, and this machine fries my brain? That would be so cool, because then I could stop writing.”