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Jul 11, 2016

How Neuroscientist Michael Grybko Defines Writer’s Block: Part One

Welcome to another guest segment of ‘The Writer’s Brain’ where we pick the brain of a neuroscientist about the elements of great writing. This week’s show covers some possible origins and solutions to an ailment known only to writers.

Research scientist Michael Grybko, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington, returned to help me pinpoint the mysteries of writer’s block from a scientific standpoint.

If you missed the first three installments of The Writer’s Brain — on How Neuroscience Defines Creativity, Empathy, and Storytelling — you can find all of them in the show notes and on

Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, please click “subscribe” to automatically see new interviews, and help other writers find us.

In Part One of the file Michael Grybko and I discuss:

  • Why Writers Argue about the Definition of Writer’s Block
  • What Happens When Your Creativity Dries Up
  • How to Find Your Most Productive Writing Time
  • Why Writers Need to Unplug to Recharge
  • How an ‘Incubation Phase’ Can Improve Your Writing

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Neuroscientist Michael Grybko Defines Writer’s Block: Part One

Kelton Reid: The Writer Files is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state-of-the-art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive design, airtight security, instant updates, and much more. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over a 177,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress right now.

These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.

I’m your host Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll discover how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.

Welcome to another segment of The Writer’s Brain, where I pick the brain of a neuroscientist about the elements of great writing. This week’s show covers some possible origins and solutions to an ailment known only to writers. Research scientist Michael Grybko of the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington returned to help me pinpoint the mysteries of writer’s block from a scientific standpoint.

If you’ve missed the first three installments of The Writer’s Brain — on How Neuroscience Defines Creativity, Empathy, and Storytelling — you can find them all in the show notes and on WriterFiles.FM.

Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, please click ‘subscribe’ to automatically see new interviews and help other writers to find us. In part one of the file, Michael and I discuss why writer’s argue about the definition of writer’s block, what happens when your creativity dries up, how to find your most productive writing time, why writers need to unplug to recharge, and how an incubation phase can vastly improve your writing.

We are rolling on The Writer Files once again with the illustrious Michael Grybko. Thank you so much for taking time out to rap with me about the dreaded writer’s block, something that we have talked about in the past but never really discussed from a scientific standpoint.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, another exciting topic. It’s my pleasure to be back. Thanks for having me.

Why Writers Argue about the Definition of Writer s Block

Kelton Reid: Awesome, awesome. I am really interested to get into this and pick your brain about it. It’s a question that I ask writers on the show, authors on the show, just if they believe in it. I have asked in the past how they deal with it. I think it’s a contested subject. It really is. It’s something that it’s almost like there’s a dividing line, like there’s writers that don’t believe in it.

They’re like, “Ah, it’s not a thing.” And there are writers that do believe in it or believe in it because they know somebody’s who’s had it. They just empathize with those who have had it, but they’ve never had it themselves.

Michael Grybko: Right. That’s not surprising. There’s going to be a lot of individual differences, a lot of personality differences. As we’ll get into later, these may affect how prone someone is to being blocked. It’s not surprising to see all these discrepancies here.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. Well, to kick it off, one piece that you and I have passed back and forth was a New Yorker piece that Maria Konnikova wrote titled How to Beat Writer’s Block. What I found most interesting about this was the origins of the term ‘writer’s block’ she had tracked down to this Freudian psychiatrist named Edmund Bergler, who had studied writers for a couple decades and came to some pretty interesting conclusions.

In 1950, he published a paper called Does Writer’s Block Exist? in a journal founded by Freud, it appears. He came to some really interesting conclusions that I think you will confirm.

Just to go back to that dividing line, from Toni Morrison to Joyce Carol Oates, a lot of famous writers have argued about writer’s block itself, but never really can define it. I think Ms. Morrison told her students that writer’s block should be respected, like it was a thing, not to try to write through it. Ms. Oates believed that it didn’t exist, but admitted that when you’re trying to do something prematurely, it just won’t come out. Certain subjects need time. They need marination, if you will, before they can be written about.

Then, on the far end of the spectrum, we’ve got writers like Steven Pressfield from his classic War of Art that likens it more to a supernatural force inside of the writer called ‘resistance,’ which I love. I think it’s a great idea, but it’s this repelling force that keeps us aware, distracts us from our work. Writers just aren’t all on the same page. Now, science is offering us a glimpse of what’s going on inside the writer’s brain again.

Michael Grybko: Again, like I said, it’s not surprising there’s all these different viewpoints. That gets to the heart of writer’s block. It is a personal issue. There’s different moods, and we’ll get into some of that. I think there’s a lot of reasons for writer’s block. Some of them really aren’t even a neuroscience problem or are hard to touch on, and I think one, just not having enough time. That happens. We just can’t get to something.

Then, sometimes, I think another thing maybe we’re just not even interested in the topic. Then it can be hard to write about or work on if we lose our passion. Those are things I think are hard to touch on or not too interesting from the neuroscience perspective. But one of the causes for writer’s block that we may be able to get into from a neuroscience perspective is this loss in creativity.

Kelton Reid: Right.

What Happens When Your Creativity Dries Up

Michael Grybko: We had an episode on creativity, and we defined ‘creativity’ as an idea that’s novel, good, and useful.

Kelton Reid: Right.

Michael Grybko: For this episode, I thought, “Well, what happens when the creative process breaks down and we have a deficit of creativity? What can lead to that, and what’s going on in the neurons that may facilitate our writer’s block or deficit?”

Kelton Reid: Right.

Michael Grybko: There you go.

Kelton Reid: Exactly, and I’ll link to that creativity episode. In fact, I’ll link to all three of the neuroscience Writer’s Files that we’ve done. In that particular episode, you were talking about this particular area called the caudate nucleus that’s active during writing. Can you just touch on that again, or can we revisit what that does for us?

Michael Grybko: Right. I think this was one of the articles, was it in The New Yorker, that you turned me onto? But writers were being compared to pro athletes. I forgot what their names were.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, I think it was a New York Times article.

Michael Grybko: New York Times, okay. I went back to the original research, and they showed that this area in the brain called the caudate nucleus was active in writers when they were doing their thing. This area was shown to be active in things like athletes, piano players. That was a little surprising to the researchers. I don’t think it’s all that surprising when you pull away from things a bit and think about how the brain works. I want to go back and talk about creativity again.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, please.

Michael Grybko: Again, it’ll be good that you linked to the old episode, so we don’t have to go over everything again.

One of the things we talked about in creativity is how knowledge is stored and information is stored in the brain. Briefly, knowledge isn’t really stored in a neuron. One neuron doesn’t hold a piece of information. Knowledge is represented as a group of neurons and how they behave both temporally and spatially. It’s the firing of large numbers of neurons which represent certain information and knowledge.

Now, the brain has been broken up into a lot of different regions, and we’ve attached some functionality to these regions. For instance, hippocampus is known for memory, spatial memory. Prefontal cortex, executive function. Cerebellum has been linked to movement. All those areas, functionality of these areas, it’s not just these areas that control that aspect of a behavior. All these areas are connected with one another, albeit some of these connections are indirect, but ultimately, the brain is one organ. It’s not like a linear set of processes that happens to lead to a behavior.

This being said, this really sets the framework that allows us to be creative — this firing pattern in areas that fluctuates as behaviors change. It’s this aspect of brain function that makes us associative learners and allows us to recognize these relationships between disparately connected items, which is really the hallmark of being creative.

Unfortunately, this connectedness can have a downside. I think that’s what also leads to writer’s block. For instance, our emotions can impact our productivity on a task. There’s post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries. Although they may impact specifically one area of the brain — because of this connectedness — that may end up having widespread effects and affect our behavior and our ability to perform on other tasks. When an activity in the area of your brain that is responsible for processing information we need to write effectively, then we may end up with writer’s block.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. That brings us to the million-dollar question for you. How do we avoid that?

Michael Grybko: Right. Oh boy, big moment.

Kelton Reid: Drum roll please.

Michael Grybko: I’m responsible now.

Kelton Reid: No, I know there are lots of facets to this.

Michael Grybko: There are.

Kelton Reid: And honestly, some of it is a little over my head. Okay, way over my head, but it does make a lot of sense that there’s not just one cause and/or effect. There’s lots of stuff going on. What are some of the things that we can touch on in this session without talking for eight hours?

Michael Grybko: For me, for what I do, I look at how neurons behave with certain behaviors. That’s what my training is. On these topics, that’s what I like to look for — what are some possible neuronal mechanisms behind these behaviors and these things we see?

When I started thinking about this, one of the things I came up with was time management. One aspect of time management is just making sure we have enough time in the day to do all the things we need to get done. If you don’t have enough time to get to the writing, you just don’t get to it. That’s something that we really can’t deal with. I can’t from a neuroscience perspective. That’s a scheduling issue. You have to go talk to your boss or something, and I don’t know.

There is one aspect of time management I think gets overlooked a lot when people are putting their schedules together, filling out their Google Calendars, whatever. That’s not only making sure that we have enough time to get all the things we need to do done in a day or get to, but also making sure that we’re doing things at the appropriate time. I think this really gets overlooked because there’s quite a bit of research out there showing neuronal activity patterns are influenced by environmental factors that are out of our control.

A great example of this is something a lot of people know about, and that’s the circadian rhythm, also called sleep-wake cycle, light-dark cycle. Obvious example, at night we sleep, at day we’re awake at the light. I think what people don’t realize is that throughout the day, even if we’re awake, there could be specific times within a day, the changes fluctuate over time, and there could be specific tasks that we’re better at, at certain times of the day.

Kelton Reid: Just to touch on that a little bit as you’re getting into it, let’s see, Maria Popova did a really pretty cool collaboration with an artist called Famous Writers’ Sleep Habits and Literary Productivity. Although all the writers have different sleep patterns, a lot of them are very prolific. They had just figured out their circadian rhythms is what I’m assuming.

How to Find Your Most Productive Writing Time

Michael Grybko: Right. Yeah. We’re getting back to an area where we’re going to see a lot of individual differences. Yeah, not surprising. People are going to have different habits, and although they may be performing a similar task, someone may be a morning person. Someone may be a night person.

There’s some experimental evidence to support this. Circadian rhythms are studied pretty extensively. This is just one example of the rhythms that happen in our brain, this oscillatory behavior, but we’ll just stick to the circadian rhythms.

Back in the early ’90s, a group, I think it was Hoffmann and Balschun, showed that mice acquired knowledge used to navigate a maze faster during the dark phase of the light-dark cycle. Mice are nocturnal, so that’s not too surprising.

But then another group led by Colwell in UCLA showed a different type of memory. This tone-associated fear conditioning was acquired more rapidly in the light phase. Then they also went on to show that the recall of this memory, this tone-associated fear conditioning was more pronounced during the day as well. This is really interesting. It’s pointing to this idea that it’s not just generally we’re more alert at a certain point of the day, but it could be task-specific. Gaining knowledge and recalling knowledge, we need to be better at these things at different times in the day.

For a writer, I’m thinking, really self-reflect, take a look at your habits and what are the best times for you to do certain tasks during the day. Maybe researching a topic, there may be a certain time of day where research is good for you. Maybe later in the day, a different time, when actually writing about it may be different.

Kelton Reid: Exactly.

Michael Grybko: You may be more proficient at it. Do a little self-reflecting, and keep this in mind. This may help stave off writer’s block. If you’re not doing the appropriate task at the appropriate time, you may not be your most productive.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, absolutely. Different writers research better and more effectively first thing in the morning, and some writers are sleeping during that time.

Michael Grybko: Right.

Kelton Reid: I’ve interviewed lots of writers, and they all seem to have this different scheduling mechanism ability to really focus and find flow at different times. I’m thinking of Dean Wesley Smith, prolific, prolific sci-fi writer, who doesn’t really get started until late in the evening when things are quiet, like Balzac, for instance, late-night writers. Then some of these journalists, for instance, can only find that same quiet first thing in the morning, like right at dawn. A lot of famous writers have had that.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, tune in. Figure out what your schedule is and when you’re most productive. That could be a very important aspect to avoiding writer’s block.

Why Writers Need to Unplug to Recharge

Kelton Reid: Absolutely. I want to talk a little bit about multitasking and a term given to some entrepreneurs and writers, ‘the workaholic.’ I’m seeing more and more evidence that these things are not good for us.

Michael Grybko: Right.

Kelton Reid: I identify a little bit with the workaholic thing, and I’m definitely somebody who, when I get into a bad space, can multitask terribly ineffectively, but I think I’m getting stuff done.

Michael Grybko: Right. I’m not sure of the neurological basis for this. There is a lot coming out now about just how much an individual can work and be productive. There does seem to be a point where we’re still working a lot, but really not doing much.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah.

Michael Grybko: Even though we think we are, we’re a lot of times doing more harm than good. This is, unfortunately, really complex behavior, and it’s hard to find an animal model for this.
Animals generally aren’t workaholics. You don’t see the mouse still trying to figure out the maze usually. They usually just quit. They throw in the towel. They’re like, “No, too complicated. I’m done.”

Kelton Reid: That probably goes without saying that, that kind of behavior is going to affect other parts of your life negatively.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, absolutely.

Kelton Reid: Relationships, for instance. You need some work-life balance probably.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, I think so. I think getting off topic is very important for awhile. Having something to do outside of work.

Kelton Reid: Absolutely. Downtime I think is what you’re getting at.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, downtime, but also having your downtime be active, having some hobbies that are still engaging.

Kelton Reid: Sure. I did just want to touch back quickly on something that I know has been a topic that’s been bandied back and forth. It’s something I know that some of my coworkers do, and they take a nap during the middle of the day. Most of them work remotely, so they work at home. They can do that.

I’m seeing more and more evidence that some of these bigger, more enlightened tech companies are offering things like sleep pods and places for employees to take naps around the office because it’s been shown to boost productivity.

Michael Grybko: Right.

Kelton Reid: That probably fits right back into that circadian.

Michael Grybko: Yeah, and just the benefits of sleep. Again, we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Sleep’s really important. It’s a hard topic to explore at the neurological level because we have to be able to peer inside an individual’s head — and that’s a hard thing to do, to look inside someone’s head, an individual’s head while they’re sleeping — because most methods are prohibitive to sleep.

But we’re starting to get there. We’re starting to understand some of the changes that happen to the brain and the benefits of sleeping. Then I think a lot of this is just our society’s changing, and our habits are changing with the Internet. Like you said, now we can work from home a lot more. The workday isn’t nine to five really anymore. People work late at night, but then they take breaks during the day. This is being accepted.

There’s a lot cultural shifts that are happening as well. I think we’ll see how it goes, but it’s giving people a lot more freedom. Now, since we’re not crammed into those banker’s hours of when we have to be productive, maybe we can start being productive during times when it’s best for us, not confined in the office anymore in the office hours.

Kelton Reid: Absolutely.

How an ‘Incubation Phase’ Can Improve Your Writing

Michael Grybko: Another topic that came up when I was thinking about this, when I was contemplating, “What do I say about writer’s block? What’s going on in the brain?” Something I stumbled upon was this idea of an incubation stage. A lot of people talk about this. There’s a lot of self-reporting and some anecdotal evidence out there that this is important. There’s some human research showing that an incubation stage is beneficial to creativity.

One thing I came across when I was looking at this, I remember the story about this guy, Kary Mullis, who now has a Nobel prize. He invented PCR, polymerase chain reaction, which is this widely used biochemical assay. It’s used now in forensics and just all over the place. He was working on something else. It was similar to PCR, but he was in the lab trying to figure out an assay how to improve the yield of a certain reaction.

Got out of the lab, he was driving on a highway in California, and he just pulled over. Basically, the idea of PCR hit him — it’s a cellular reaction. That got me thinking about this incubation stage. I’m trying to think, “What’s going on? Why is taking a break from a task important? Is there anything going on in the brain that could be beneficial or happening?” I realized there’s some research and animals’ models showing this phenomenon known as what’s been termed ‘replay.’

This is some work done by Loren Frank and UC San Francisco that showed, in the hippocampus, there’s a specific neural activity observed in animals when they’re learning a task. What’s interesting, this activity continues or is replayed when the animal stops performing the task.

Then they went on to show that disrupting this activity during these idle periods could also disrupt learning. The animal would just not behave as well on the task later. Again, this is animals. We obviously have to put a few asterisks here. I think what this does demonstrate is there could be some important neuronal activity happening, even when we’re away from the task, that’s important to us accomplishing our goals.

Kelton Reid: Absolutely.

Michael Grybko: What’s interesting to me in this is there’s no way to ask the animals in the study, like, “Were you thinking about what you were doing, or was this just happening?” There’s no way to know if the incubation stage, if we’re consciously aware of this neuronal activity or if this is going on without us being aware. If we could come up with a way to ask the mice and rats, “All right, are you thinking about the maze right, or is this happening independently of you thinking about it?”

Kelton Reid: For sure.

Michael Grybko: That’s kind of a side note.

Kelton Reid: Thanks so much for joining us for a glimpse into the workings of the writer’s brain. For more episodes of The Writer Files or to simply to leave us a comment or a question, drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you next week.