writing and the speed of thought

When we first learned to write, we focused on holding the pencil and forming the letters. The attention given to the physical task of writing likely interfered with our ability to give attention to what we wanted to say. Later, after mastering writing (or, if you are like me, gave up on forming legible letters), the ability to write things down made it easier to develop more complex lines of thought. I think I experienced similar pressures on cognitive load when learning to type. And I still have a related experience in my need to focus on the virtual keys on my iphone.

When my writing experience is working well, the thoughts just seem to flow into sentences. I don’t have to stop and think about how to put a given thought into words. Everything seems to be clicking. I know where I want to go next but not in a fully conscious way. If I start to turn my attention farther into the future, toward the end of the paragraph or the bottom of the page or alternately if I start paying attention to the movement of my fingers on the keys then the whole mental state starts to collapse, as if it is a delicate wave structure. And I suppose neuroscientists might explain such states, at least partially, in terms of waves. Other times, I stop and plan, my mind reaching out for multiple connections as if I am gathering mental strength to hurtle myself forward into the stream of writing. Here my mind converses with itself, point and counterpoint, trying out different rhetorical strategies, poking holes in arguments, persuading itself. I become argumentative. I have, in the past, thought about this as a process of intensification, a kind of boiling over of the mind, where speed, connection, and argument leads to some change, some insight, where something new, with new properties emerges, like water that becomes steam, leaving the ground to float over a landscape of concepts.

However, over the years, I’ve also come to find that an exhausting, unpleasant, and unsustainable process. Also, it is perhaps not the most productive approach. In composition studies, mostly through CHAT and video game studies, we’ve become familiar with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. In neuroscience, flow states have become associated with transient hypofrontality, a concept that’s been around for about a decade I believe. What is that? Basically (and I will not pretend to more than a basic understanding), transient refers to a mental state that comes and goes. Hypofrontality references a reduction in the operation of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for all of our higher order cognitive operations, including symbolic behaviors). Transient hypofrontality is commonly associated with certain practices like mediation, hypnosis, runner’s high, and the use of certain drugs (e.g. LSD). It is also associated with flow states. This appears counter-intuitive. Typically we imagine that we are at our most capable when our prefrontal cortex is fully engaged, not when it is operating in a reduced way. Transient hypofrontality suggests a reduction in our attention. As the article linked above suggested, athletic performance causes hypofrontality because physical demands are reflected in cognitive demands for implicit (i.e. unconscious) mental systems. I think that’s why I enjoy exercise. If you push yourself hard enough, you literally lose your capacity to think.

What does this have to do with writing and particularly with writing practices that are intertwined with exploration and invention (as opposed to more transactional and mundane writing practices)? Writers have used a variety of strategies from drug use to automatic writing to activate hypofrontality. That’s nothing new. And there’s research into writing and flow states. However I’ve always thought about it as speeding up. Now I wondering if it is better to think of this as slowing down. Not as fully activating the brain and putting it all to work, pushing it to its limits, but calming the mind.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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