The Writer’s High

Woman running on wet sidewalk.

Why writing feels good.

You’ve heard of runner’s high: a feeling of euphoria comparable to that produced by mood-altering drugs that runners often experience and always talk about. You may or may not relate. The only euphoria I experience during exercise is from TV shows I watch while using the treadmill.

I have noticed, though, that I experience a similar feeling when I complete a piece of writing. I get my “natural high” when I put my ideas onto a page. It’s this rewarding feeling that keeps me taking on new writing projects despite the agonizing process that precedes their completion. The reason I suffer through rounds of obsessive editing is the same reason a marathon runner pushes through the final kilometers of a race: a natural high is the payoff. My scientist’s brain had me wondering why.

First, I looked into the runner’s high.

The runner’s high has been proven scientifically; your brain releases chemicals like endorphins and dopamine during exercise, which signal to other parts of your brain to numb pain, lower stress, and boost mood. This brain response is a result of evolution. A long time ago, when humans had to hunt for prey and escape from predators, only those that could run fast and run for a long time survived. These survivors ran well because they had a runner’s high response that positively reinforced them to keep running. And so, the runner’s high genes survived and were passed on to future generations – evolution! Eventually, humans no longer needed to run to survive, and the runner’s high gene was diluted. Today, some of us still have the gene, but some don’t (cough, me). Makes sense.

Could we have evolved a similar response to writing?

Science says yes. Dr. Ronald T. Kellogg, who wrote a book about the psychology of writing, argues that writing is a basic human need. We as humans are innately driven to communicate our experiences through forms of symbolism, like writing. We put our feelings into words because this helps us order our thoughts and make meaning out of our experiences. Writing helps us with the very-human “what is the meaning of life?” dilemma. It’s logical, then, that writing developed across almost every human culture in history.

But going back to the theory of evolution, for some kind of “drive to write” to be physiologically ingrained, writing must have been beneficial for our survival. Along with writing came the ability to make physical records of our learning (i.e. techniques for survival) that could be taught to other people and even to future generations. Writing things down saved time and helped more people survive. There could likely be a motivational response to writing in our brain that is similar to the runner’s high.

To study our psychological responses to writing, scientists use a paradigm called expressive writing where subjects write for 15-20 minutes about a traumatic life experience, 3-5 days in a row. Four months after just one episode of expressive writing, people have better overall mental and physical health, as assessed by a doctor, compared to controls – unbelievable, right? But many studies back up the health benefits of expressive writing. Regular writing has been shown to strengthen immunity, improve memory and sleep, and speed recovery in patients suffering from asthma and arthritis, cancer and AIDS. Writing also improves our mood and increases motivation. For example, people with stressful jobs who write regularly increase their hourly effort at work, and people who were recently fired report feeling less anger towards their former employer, drink less alcohol and find new employment 30% sooner than those who don’t write. Clearly, our bodies and minds have some kind of strong, positive response to writing.

To look closely at what exactly is going on, scientists use technology to image brain activity while people write. In one study, subjects were shown photos of people with angry or scared expressions on their faces, and were asked to choose a word to represent the emotion, a process called “affect labelling”. Brain imaging showed that an area of our brains called the amygdala, involved in emotional reactions, lit up when the subjects saw photos of upset faces. However, once they assigned a word to describe the upset face, the amygdala response subsided. Putting feelings into words, which is what we do when we write, relieves us from the stress associated with the feelings.

In a second study, scientists looked at dopamine release during writing. When people read a piece of writing, there is no dopamine release, but when re-writing the passage, there is a dopamine surge in their brain. Dopamine is a chemical that acts in our brains to increase reward and motivation. It is also released during the runner’s high and by many recreational drugs. Together, these two studies show that there is strong, positive reinforcement driving us to write.

More studies need to be done to completely understand the writer’s high, but science shows that like running, writing innately triggers a mood-boosting response. It’s no wonder that blogging grows in popularity every day and is even used in hospitals as a therapy for patients with serious illnesses. Whether our writing will be read online by thousands of people or stay hidden in the pages of a notebook forever, we all write because we are driven to feel the natural high of purging our thoughts into words. And that’s exactly how I find myself here, at the end of another long and treacherous writing process, thinking ahhhh that felt good.

Header image by Francesco Gallarotti.

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