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Quirky Minds: Hypergraphia: A River of Words

Is hypergraphia—the compulsive need to write—a gift or a curse?

Alice Flaherty was always a prolific writer. The notes she took during her hospital residency were so exhaustive they morphed into a neurology textbook. But her habit went into overdrive in 1998 after the deaths of her prematurely delivered twin sons. Flaherty's family and friends had braced themselves for a descent into depression. Instead, they saw a burst of creativity so intense it was like a muse had taken up residence in her head.

"It was as if someone had thrown a switch," Flaherty says. "Everything seemed so full of importance, I had to write it all down and preserve it." She started waking up in the middle of the night to scribble stray thoughts on Post-its. Soon she found herself scrawling notes on her arm while stuck in traffic. Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, eventually diagnosed herself with hypergraphia—the overwhelming compulsion to write.

Tales of writers possessed by the muse on steroids date back to the first-century Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote about "the incurable writing disease." But it wasn't until the 20th century that scientists explored the brain chemistry behind this lust for language. In the 1970s, neurologists discovered that hypergraphia was often triggered by temporal lobe epilepsy. Scientists later linked it with bipolar disorder. Evidence now points to an abnormal interaction between the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain in hypergraphia. Activity in the temporal lobe is reduced, spurring activity in the frontal, the area that potentiates complex behavior like speech. A writer's inner critic goes quiet, and the ideas flow. What comes out might not be brilliant, or even make sense, but it provides fodder for future editing.

Although antidepressants have been shown to stanch the flow of words in hypergraphics, the condition is so rare that there are no accepted guidelines for treatment. Luckily, most hypergraphics view it as a gift, says Flaherty, who was inundated with hypergraphic patients after publishing a book on the subject in 2004 called The Midnight Disease. "Hypergraphia is abnormal, but it's not necessarily bad," she says. "For us it is mostly pleasurable. You only suffer when you think you're writing badly."

Case Study: David Welch, of Falls Church Virginia

  • Early Signs: He realized his compulsion to write was unusual around age 10 when he read about a man in Guinness World Records who kept a daily journal for 67 years and immediately thought "I can beat that."
  • A Day's Work: He spends at least three hours recording each day's activities in 15-minute increments. He's missed only six days in the last 25 years.
  • Why He Feels Lucky: "There's something out there to learn from people every day," Welch says. "Writing helps me ensure I don't miss those lessons."
  • On His Legacy: Two hundred years from now, Welch believes, historians might find a detailed record of one man's life useful, so he plans to bequeath his journals to The Library of Congress.
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Famous Hypergraphics

  • Danielle Steel
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Joyce Carol Oates
  • Stephen King
  • Isaac Asimov