Writing Makes You Feel Better

Neuroscience is now validating what journal writers have known for ages: writing makes you feel better.

Brain researcher Matthew Lieberman does cutting-edge research in the UCLA Social-Cognitive Neurosciences lab, and although his primary focus is on language in thinking, much of it has fascinating implications about the possibility of using various forms of writing to reframe the way we view the world. Here’s a thumbnail summary of his overall findings:

When our brain is running on auto-pilot, the amygdala and basal ganglia (X system, for refleXive) sort input with lightning speed to produce reflexive responses to known stimuli. When something new pops up, the amygdala stalls out and a cluster of the anterior cintulate cortex, prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe (C system for refleCtive) kick in to reflect on the situation and select a contextually appropriate response.

The X and C systems are hard-wired with an “either-or” switch. They can’t both run at the same time. So when we are in a constantly changing environment, the C system stays on most of the time. Recent research has shown that using language activates the C system, even when the X system is on track. Behavioral responses (overt displays of biochemical surge-induced emotions such as  facial expression and language) are moderated when they stream through the C system.

These results suggest that writing about memories establishes new cause-and-effect relationships and reprograms the amygdala, eventually creating new response patterns and reducing stress. James Pennebaker’s seminal research and the myriad follow-on projects clearly demonstrate that writing about traumatic memories defuses them, but doesn't tell how that works

Lieberman joined the crowd replicating Pennebaker’s research with the addition of brain scans and explains the results. "Writing seems to help the brain regulate emotion unintentionally. Whether it's writing things down in a diary, writing bad poetry, or making up song lyrics that should never be played on the radio, it seems to help people emotionally," Dr Lieberman said.

Write now: pull out your journal or blank paper and write about something distressing or puzzling. Write about it three or four times on different days until it begins to make sense in a new light. Dr. Pennebaker's guidelines are here if you want further guidance.


Linda Joy Myers said...

Sharon, great article. I love finding out how science supports what we've all sensed was true: that writing is healing. I mention Lieberman's work in The Power of Memoir--and I look forward to more research about all the different ways that writing helps us to shine in our lives!
--Linda Joy

Sharon Lippincott said...

Linda Joy, you are the one who introduced me to Matthew Lieberman's work in The Power of Memoir. I'm delving more deeply into his work and lots more in preparation for a September class I'm teaching on Writing for the Health of It, so there will surely be several more posts on the topic. I'm excited to learn that sign-ups for the class have filled the room at both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Linda Joy Myers said...

Congrats on finding such a popular topic! Let me know how it goes.
--Linda Joy