How Images Can Fire Up Your Writing Brain

Why art stimulates global ignition

Posted Jan 25, 2016

Creating or finding a visual representation of the story helps your brain achieve the sort of global ignition that lights up the neuronal network related to writing the particular project you’re working on. A University of Toronto meta-analysis, published in the journal "Brain and Cognition", found that viewing paintings not only “switched on” the visual cortex, but also those parts of the brain linked to inner thoughts and emotions, movement regulation, and learning.

Courtesy of
Source: Courtesy of

When global ignition occurs, the brain is not globally excited—a very precise set of neurons is excited, which defines how an individual experiences consciousness. The neurons can be incredibly precise—researchers have found that many people have a set of neurons that only respond to Bill Clinton’s face, and merely suggesting that these people imagine Bill Clinton’s face is enough to activate those particular neurons. The majority of anterior temporal neurons exhibit that same selectivity for actual and imagined images—and memory recall can also activate them. That being said, conscious information is distributed within a myriad of neuronal cells (millions upon millions of neuronal cells). 

So what to do? 

When working on a particular story, find an image (or better yet create one) that evokes something crucial to the story (see examples here), and meditate on the image prior to writing. This kind of “stimulation prepping” will fire up your writing brain, particularly the neurons focused on the work at hand. Once global ignition occurs—whether it’s focused on characterization, plots, setting, and so on—firing up the particular neurons connected to the story you are crafting fuels your imagination. Scientists believe that the brain is more interested—and intrigued—in how an image is depicted than it is in the image itself, hence the activation in cognitive functions. They also found that viewing visual art activates the brain’s reward circuit, which has evolved to provide reinforcement when what you’re doing creates benefits, or pleases, the brain.

Choose a painting

Emory University School of Medicine researchers found that the ventral striatum and the hypothalamus, parts of the brain involved in making decisions, taking risks, and experiencing pleasure, are activated more from viewing paintings than photographs that represent similar themes. Just think of all the fun you’ll have searching for the perfect painting—or painting your own.

Happy writing!

Susan Reynolds is the author of Fire Up Your Writing Brain: How to Use Proven Neuroscience to Become a More Creative, Productive, and Successful Writer. She also coauthored Train Your Brain to Get Happy, and Train Your Brain to Get Rich.