In addition to its external value, writing also affects our brains in other ways. It can help us think clearly and logically by giving us a visual representation of our thoughts that allows for better organization, and it can influence how we feel and interpret information. It can even reduce stress by providing an outlet for stressful thoughts and ideas. There's an interesting infographic here that describes some of the ways that writing affects your brain and how writing can be beneficial to your brain. In a medical context, writing has long been proposed and successfully used to help patients and families deal with trauma and stress from chronic illness and other adverse events, particularly with individuals who are shy or reluctant to speak openly about their problems.
In the course of human evolution, writing is a relatively recent development. While picture drawing to represent ideas has been around for over tens of thousands of years, writing as we know it really began in several cultures during the bronze age, around 5,000 years ago. As societies got bigger, the need for writing and communication increased, which drove its technological development.
In our individual lives, writing is learned much later than speaking, in part because writing requires hand motor control that develops later than our ability to sound out words. In school, students spend a great deal of time writing to express various ideas, but afterward, writing drops off considerably for many people. Depending on their job, most people write much less than they speak, and the writing that they do is often limited in the sense that it is only to record events, keep records, create personal reminders, or sometimes send emails and communicate short thoughts via text message.
It is important to note here that research has shown that there are differences in neural functions between reading and writing. When reading, the brain is taking words on a page or screen and converting them into ideas. When writing, the brain is taking ideas and converting them into words. But, these are not simply reversible processes that use the same neural networks. Doing a lot of reading in your day-to-day life is not the same as doing a lot of writing. While related, they are not simply reversible processes, and doing one does not necessarily enhance your ability to do the other.
As a result of the limited writing that many people do as adults, the neural networks that regulate writing skills in the brain may not be as developed and established as the networks controlling speech. Therefore, after brain injury or stroke, writing ability can be significantly impaired (a condition called agraphia or dysgraphia), and writing skills can be very difficult to re-learn. Also, in the course of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, writing skills are often significantly impaired before verbal skills.
In light of the benefits of writing and the important place that it plays in our identity as humans, the next time you need to organize your thoughts and emotions, sit down and try writing or typing them out. Maybe it will help. You'll also be exercising the creative and writing-related neural networks in your brain that will help keep those areas running strong.
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Sources and Further Reading
- J. Friedland. "Development and Breakdown of the Written Language." J. Commun. Disord., 1990. 23:171-186.
- K.L. Grizzle and M.D. Simms. "Language and Learning: A Discussion of Typical and Disordered Development." Curr. Probl. Pediatr. Adolesc. Health Care, 2009. 39:168-189.
- J. Neils-Strunjas, K. Groves-Wright, P. Mashima, and S. Harnish. "Dysgraphia in Alzheimer’s Disease: A Review for Clinical and Research Purposes." Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 2006. 49:1313–1330.
- S.M. Harnish and J. Neils-Strunjas. "In Search of Meaning: Reading and Writing in Alzheimer's Disease." Seminars in Speech and Language, 2008. 29:44-59.
- D. Oppenheim, V. Pittolo, C. Hericot, J. Grill, O. Hartmann, S. Dauchy. "A writing workshop for children with cancer." Arch. Dis. Child., 2008. 93:708-709.
- J. Smyth and R. Helm. "Focused expressive writing as self-help for stress and trauma." J Clin. Psychol., 2003. 59:227-235.
- J.W. Pennebaker. "The effects of traumatic discolsure on physical and mental health: the values of writing and talking about upsetting events." Int. J. Emerg. Ment. Health., 1999. 1:9-18.
- N.N. McGihon. "Writing as a therapeutic modality." J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv., 1996. 34:31-5.