The Brain, Emotions, and Writing: Why They All Work Together

by Beth Jacobs, Ph.D.

Expressive writing helps people emotionally.  As a journaler and a therapist, I’ve witnessed this reality in many contexts and thanks to the line of research started by James Pennebaker, this fact is now documented in the terms of empirical science (Pennebaker, 1997; Smyth, 1998).  The definitive statement about why this is true or exactly how it works will never be made because the ways writing about important experiences helps people emotionally are as varied as the people themselves.  But modern brain science does provide some information to structure and expand our awareness of writing’s benefits.  If we understand some about how the brain processes emotion, we see a concrete and clear logic behind writing as a tool of emotion management.
We know now that emotions are much more than conscious processes; that they are states of being composed of physiological reactions and deeply personal meaning.  In a very simplified way, an emotion starts with an emotional stimulus being received by a sense organ.  This information is relayed to the limbic system, which is the brain’s very domineering emotional processing area.  It is located centrally in the brain, connects to most other brain areas and many body parts and regulates chemicals that affect how the entire brain operates (LeDoux, 2002).  The limbic system relays information between the deeper and evolutionarily older parts of the brain that regulate arousal, attention and motivation and the more relatively recent neocortex that synthesizes information and evaluates, judges and makes decisions.

Basically, when we count to ten to avoid losing our temper, we are engaging neocortex structures to try to override the limbic system.  This works really well for about ten seconds.  Real modification of the emotional system takes more integration, and this is what writing can provide. Writing unifies brain processes by focusing motor, memory, emotional and planful cognitive circuits in one act.  Writing can actually develop complex neuronal connections that override emotional reactivity and writing can amplify positive emotional states.  Writing is not the only tool, but a particularly apt one for deeply weaving the powerful information of the limbic structures into the broader processing capabilities of the conscious brain.

While you’re writing, the fine points of brain anatomy might not feel terribly relevant.  But the engrossed, releasing and relieving qualities of your writing experience may be based on the ways that your brain processes collaborate to make that writing happen.


Sign up for the online class with Beth Jacobs, which starts on Tuesday, January 18, on Writing for Emotional Balance.

Beth Jacobs, Ph.D. is the author of Writing for Emotional Balance:  A Guided Journal to Help You Manage Overwhelming Emotions (New Harbinger Publishers).  She is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois and an adjunct faculty member of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.  She loves to write and journal and has been developing therapeutic writing techniques in her private practice and with groups of adults and adolescents. See for more information.

LeDoux, Joseph (2002).  Synaptic Self:  How Our Brains Become Who We Are.  New York , Penguin Putnam.

Pennebaker, James (1997).  Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion. New York, Guilford.

Smyth, Joshua M. (1998).  Written Emotional Expression:  Effect Sizes, Outcome Types and Moderating Variables.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.  66: pages 174-184.