How to Change

Here's what the experts have to say about making the improvements you need—and the best tools for getting there.

The Psychology of Writing: Skill #2

Your brain will support your habit if you set it up correctly.

When we develop habits, we store memories and create specific neural pathways by increasing the number of synapses in the brain. I researched this for Snap!, a self-help book about maximizing aha! moments, and found some intriguing research.

This is the second of my series about the psychological processes that affect writing. You can see the first one here.

First, let's talk about memory. There’s evidence that training in specific activities strengthens certain areas of the brain. Researchers at London’s University College studied the size of the hippocampus in cab drivers, because they surmised that these cabbies must have an enhanced working memory of locations: Their training ran for two years and they had to prove they could locate thousands of locations all over London.

Compared to a control group, the cabbies’ hippocampus, where memory gets consolidated, was in fact more developed. The longer they’d been on the job, the larger its size. That is, they’d developed strong “body memories” to support their skills.  

Body memories are based in the way the brain sends information to the cells. This is also called embodied biological intelligence, grounded cognition, or body/mind. We once viewed intelligence as brain-generated abstractions that get filed into specific neural circuits. Different circuits were linked to different abilities and activities, and these “knowledge bases” were of a higher order than those devoted to basic life processes. 

However, we now believe that cognition is grounded in an interaction among all the brain systems, basic or otherwise. People use the feedback to influence what they do next.

Now for the part that you can control: Training and rehearsal will encode and reinforce body memories.

Here’s a simple example: Any of us knows what it’s like to change a long-time habit. We continue to feel as if we should do what we used to do. Sometimes, it seems impossible to break.

For example, I moved out of an office I had occupied for two years, going from the second to the first floor. However, whenever I’m on the second floor, I automatically start to walk toward where my former office was. The same thing happens when we drive. If we let ourselves fall into automatic habits, we might find ourselves driving to a place that was once routine, even if that’s not where we intended to go.

Our body “knows” where we should be going. It holds an inner route, and it has not yet replaced that body memory with the new route. Eventually, with practice, it will, but long-term body memories can leave a lasting trace.

Here's another one: Typing, once learned, seems automatic. In fact, this is deeply rooted in body memories.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee recruited forty people who showed a typing proficiency of at least 40 words per minute, with 90 percent accuracy, using all of their fingers (not hunt-and-peck typists). They were assigned to a machine that, unbeknownst to them, introduced errors into 6% of the typed words that ended up on the screen. At the same time, the program surreptitiously corrected nearly half of the typists’ actual errors.

They did not wonder why a word they had typed incorrectly had appeared correctly, but their fingers had: after hitting the wrong key, a typist’s speed slowed slightly, even if the error was fixed before the typist noticed it. Why? Because the brain’s motor signal had registered it. The fingers “knew” the error. (As a writer, I certainly know this feeling.)

Similar body knowledge occurs with other trained activities. So, if you want to exploit the way your brain encodes your habits to support your writing habit, you need to develop and reinforce those habits.

If you want to feel the urge to write at a certain time each day, for example, you must write at this time every day for about 3 weeks. After that, it will feel like the most natural thing, and you'll miss it if you don't do it. If you want to write at least one hour each day (or two or six), you must do it regularly. No skipping!

Once you initiate the habits to which you aspire and stay with them consistently for several weeks, they will integrate into your mind/body and will feel fully part of your life.


How to Change