Continuing my trajectory about writing as a “righting” journey and the brain, I came across an article by Judy Willis, neuroscientist and writing teacher/consultant in education. Though she is talking about optimal parameters for learning, I am convinced that these same parameters work in favor of writing and emotional balance.
In review, the amygdala is the emotion center of the brain and the prefrontal cortex is where we can think about our emotions and make choices about how to react. When we write, we are using our brain to do a great many tasks at once. Here is Ms. Willis on the importance of writing.
“Consider all of the important ways that writing supports the development of higher-process thinking: conceptual thinking; transfer of knowledge; judgment; critical analysis; induction; deduction; prior-knowledge evaluation (not just activation) for prediction; delay of immediate gratification for long-term goals; recognition of relationships for symbolic conceptualization; evaluation of emotions, including recognizing and analyzing response choices; (my emphasis) and the ability to recognize and activate information stored in memory circuits throughout the brain’s cerebral cortex that are relevant to evaluating and responding to new information or for producing new creative insights—whether academic, artistic, physical, emotional, or social.”
If I had wanted any more validation than this, I couldn’t have asked for a better elucidation.
What is new in my understanding though is why writing, in a supportive emotional atmosphere, can also be healing. From my personal experiences and observations of others, I have written about why I think groups can be very important for healing, (see When Words Matter). Here, Ms. Willis talks about learning in supportive atmospheres, (when we are writing about difficult experiences, we are also trying to “learn” how to deal with those feelings), and defines a “positive brain state”.
“The brain evolved to better protect the well-being of its owner and species. One way that this is important for the classroom is that effort and attention are limited commodities the brain parses out to the actions it predicts will be successful in protection or pleasure.
So, for example, when students participate in engaging learning activities in well-designed, supportive, cooperative groups, there is a positive emotional response in the brain. The pleasure of learning with one’s peers increases the brain’s release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that increases pleasure, motivation, perseverance through challenges, and resilience to setbacks.
In addition, there is a beneficial response in the amygdala. The amygdala is a switching station (there’s one on each side of the brain) in the brain’s emotional-monitoring limbic system that determines if input will go to the reflective, higher cognitive brain (the prefrontal cortex) or down to the reactive, involuntary brain.
The brain scans of subjects learning in supportive and emotionally pleasurable situations show facilitated passage of information through the amygdala up to the higher cognitive brain, so learning associated with positive emotion is retained longer. Stress, however, determines if the intake is sent to that lower reactive brain.”
It may be that not only talking about stressful and painful emotional events, like how to deal with a chronically ill child, in a supportive group atmosphere unlocks dopamine (a lot of research has been done on the beneficial effects of all the arts on heart health) thereby reducing stress and providing people with more capacity to think, persevere and become resilient, but adding the activity of writing about those events and sharing pieces of that work with others, might heighten all of those beneficial effects.
It is time we integrated more art and writing programs into all of our medical care..