Neuroplasticity and Academic Writing

Main Ideas

  • The structure of your brain changes throughout your life depending on how you use it. You can determine what areas become stronger.
  • Focused practice with feedback, incremental change, and rewards for success that lead to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine are key principles of neuroplasticity.
  • Neuroplastic change can have spillover effects: the brain learns to apply new connections in other areas of cognition.
  • Two cognitive skills can be strengthened through neuroplasticity that will improve the quality of your writing: increasing verbal skill and increasing ability to focus attention.

Source: Jurie Roussow, “How Neuroplasticity Changes the Brain,” Rforce, March 8, 2017, Used by permission.

Basic Concepts of Neuroplasticity

Thanks to the pathbreaking research of neuroscientist Michael Merzenich and many others, we now know that the structure of the brain changes across the life course. This is because of synaptic plasticity (the strengthening or weakening of the synapses between neurons). Various kinds of training can cause physical changes in brain structure. For example, one study showed that London taxi drivers had a mental map of the entire city; they knew how to get to any address without consulting a map. Brain scans showed that their hippocampuses, the part of the brain where we store information about maps and memories of how to navigate, was larger than those of the general population (Costandi 2013). Musicians provide other examples of neuroplasticity. The area of the brain that controls finger movement is longer in a professional pianist who can play up to 1,800 notes per minute than in the general population. Musicians also have more connections across the hemispheres of the brain because they coordinate visual information, information about beat and rhythm, and movement of various parts of their body when they play an instrument (Stewart 2008).

Our knowledge of neuroplasticity is relatively young; Michael Merzenich first formed the hypotheses that the brain changes based on activity in the 1960s. At first he was ridiculed because his hypothesis contradicted long-held beliefs about the limitations and static nature of the human brain. But as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) developed in the 1990s, Merzenich’s hypothesis was proven. Studies of the neuroplasticity of the brain have exploded since then.

Merzenich offers some basic principles of neuroplasticity based on his extensive study of the phenomenon. Some of these ideas are relevant to academic writers.

  1. Change is mostly limited to situations in which the brain is in the mood for it. Merzenich writes, “If I am alert, on the ball, engaged, motivated, ready for action–the brain releases those chemical modulatory neurotransmitters that enable brain change.”
  1. The harder we try, the more we are motivated, the more alert we are, and the better (or worse) the outcome, the bigger the change. “If you are paying just a little bit of attention, are half-trying, do just a tiny bit better than the last time, . . . then only a small dose of modulatory neurotransmitters are released and the attempt results in only very small and ephemeral change.”
  1. Initial changes are just temporary. “The brain has the remarkable ability to first record the change, then make a determination–after the fact–of whether it should make that change a part of the permanent record. It does this by storing the change temporarily, then releasing modulatory neurotransmitters . . . as soon as it is reasonably certain that the behavior has, or is likely to have, a good or bad outcome. The release of these chemicals turns the brain plasticity switch ‘ON,’ which converts the temporary plastic change into a permanent, enduring, physical change.” If you feel pleased by success when you get something right as you’re learning, dopamine is released that tells the brain “Save that one!” (Merzenich 2013, 41).

Spillover Effects of Neuroplastic Change

Neuroplasticity can have spillover effects: That is, improving one function of the brain improves function in other areas. Michael Merzenich learned this when he observed language-impaired and learning-disabled children who were using a plasticity-based computer training program he and his colleagues had designed called Fast ForWord. One type of training exercise requires children to distinguish between the short and long sounds of a mooing cow. Other exercises help children learn to distinguish between similar sounds, such as “ba” and “da.” Another exercise helps them distinguish the frequency of sounds. When the child reaches a progress goal, they get a reward that reinforces the successful behavior and prompts their brain to release dopamine, thus linking a pleasure sensation with choosing correctly. (An animated character appears who does something funny like eating the correct answer or doing a little dance.) The program keeps each child performing at at least 80 percent of correct answers. As the child masters the content of one level, the program increases the level of difficulty in small increments (Rogowsky et al. 2013). Children do exercises for an hour and forty minutes for either eight or twelve weeks. The level of language ability of children who complete the program soon becomes normal for their age and their progress is very fast: most move ahead in language ability by 1.8 years in just six weeks (Doidge 2007). (If you’re interested in learning more about how Merzenich helps children who struggle with language skills, see his talk on neuroplasticity at Merzenich [2014].)

Merzenich observed that a number of children who completed the Fast ForWord program increased in other abilities besides reading and speaking: they also improved in math, science, and social studies. He believes that this is because the brain teaches itself to learn as it changes neuroplastically. He believes that “practicing a new skill, under the right conditions, can change hundreds of millions and possibly billions of the connections between the nerve cells in our brain maps” (Doidge 2007, 47). Beth Rogowsky and her colleagues observed the same spillover effect in a group of college students whose writing ability was below average. After 11 weeks of daily training with the Fast ForWord program, their scores on a standardized test of writing ability improved from 1 standard deviation below the norm to 1.3 standard deviations above the norm. The training the students received wasn’t about writing: they did exercises to improve cognitive, language, and reading skills. As their brains changed to strengthen the neural pathways for these skills, the improvement in those areas transferred to improvement in writing skills (Rogowsky et al. 2013). This evidence suggests that Merzenich is right: when we learn new skills, our neuroplastic brain learns how to transfer those skills to other tasks we do.

The Fast ForWord program works so well because it’s based on fundamental principles of neuroplasticity. First, it uses intensive practice geared toward incremental change. With each session, performance improves just a bit more. Neuroplasticity isn’t about trying for large change all at once. It’s based on many small changes that build on each other. Second, it uses rewards for reaching a goal that trigger dopamine release, which induces a sense of pleasure that reinforces the reward (Doidge 2007).

There’s another thing about neuroplasticity that seems almost magical: you don’t actually have to be doing the activity you’re learning to increase the neural pathway for that new skill. When you mentally rehearse the new skill, the same changes take place in your brain as if you were actually practicing it. In 2006, neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone did a study at Harvard with volunteers who weren’t musicians. They had jobs that didn’t require manual dexterity. They didn’t even know how to type. He divided them into two groups. All of the volunteers participated in the first phase of the experiment. They sat at a piano and practiced a simple 5-finger exercise for 2 hours a day for 5 days. They were instructed to keep as close as possible to a particular metronome beat and to do the exercise as fluidly as they could. Every day after practicing for 2 hours, they took a 20-minute test of their performance and got feedback about how they could improve.

Then Pascual-Leone divided the volunteers into two groups. The first group continued in the same way: daily practice for four weeks. But the second group didn’t practice. They sat at a piano and imagined they were practicing. They mentally rehearsed the actions their fingers would make as if they were actually playing the piano.

Then Pascual-Leone used trans-cranial-stimulation (a short electric pulse) that targeted the motor cortex of the brains of the two groups to infer the function of the neurons in that area. He found that both groups had similar amounts of neuroplastic change in the part of the motor cortex that controls finger movement. He concluded that “mental practice alone seems to be sufficient to promote the modulation of neural circuits involved in the early stages of motor skill learning. This modulation not only results in marked improvement in performance, but also seems to place the subjects at an advantage for further skill learning with minimal physical practice” (Pascual-Leone 2006, 321). The subhead Pascual-Leone used for the section of his article that discussed these findings was “If You Cannot Do It, At Least Think About It.”

Here’s another interesting finding about neuroplasticity and spillover: If you learned to play a musical instrument when you were a kid, you’re a lucky duck. Neuroplastic changes that are made earlier in life seem to punch above their weight. They teach the brain how to learn, what cognitive neuroscientist Lauren Stewart calls “metaplasticity.” She writes that “learning during sensitive periods [when the acquisition of certain skills is facilitated during certain periods of development] not only affects the development of that particular skill at that particular time, but can also determine how the brain responds to future learning experiences” (Stewart 2008, 307). Intense training during a period of what Stewart calls “exuberant neural development” appears to give a brain the ability to adapt in new learning situations long after the sensitive period of development is over.

So here’s a summary of what we know about neuroplasticity:

  • It is based on focused repetition of a new skill many times combined with feedback about how to improve.
  • It uses rewards to prompt the brain to release dopamine so the brain will associate the new activity with pleasure.
  • It has spillover effects: improvement in one cognitive function can produce improvement in other cognitive functions.
  • Mental rehearsal of a new skill has the same effect on neuroplastic change as physically doing it and in fact can lead to greater acquisition of skill.

One last point about neuroplasticity: this is what Norman Doidge calls the plastic paradox. “The same neuroplastic properties that allow us to change our brains and produce more flexible behaviors can also allow us to produce more rigid ones” (Doidge 2007, 242). This is why it’s so important to get feedback when you’re learning a new skill. It’s not about how many times you do it–it’s about how many times you do it right.

Neuroplasticity and Academic Writing

Neuroplastic learning can benefit academic authors in two ways I can think of. I’d say both are equally important. The first is learning to increase your verbal ability, a suite of skills that includes vocabulary, knowledge of grammar, the ability to write using variety of sentence structures, and the ability to write in different ways for different readers. No matter what level of verbal ability you have right now, you can increase it. And the more verbal ability you have stored in long-term memory, such that using those skills has become automatic for you, the more your working memory can devote to the crucial tasks of planning, seeing patterns and connections in a body of knowledge, and generating analysis.

The second area of neuroplastic learning for writers relates to your ability to focus your attention. This is a skill where we all have tremendous room for improvement.

Learning Grammar and Sentence Structure

Learning even a few grammar rules and increasing your inventory of sentence structures by one or two will go a long way toward making the task of generating sentences more fluid. That, in turn, will take some of the burden off your working memory so it will be able to devote more resources to planning and analysis. Putting this new knowledge in long-term memory and using it on a regular basis will strengthen the neural pathways that retrieve it when you need it. This is a significant way that neuroplasticity can help a writer.

You may find that writing a sentence or a paragraph is hard work. Pulling sentences out of your brain and putting them into text may feel very effortful. That’s because it is. If you haven’t had sufficient practice writing sentences, it’s more difficult than it needs to be. What you’re experiencing is that your ability to think about your work is more developed than your level of verbal skill. This is a common experience for writers, particularly at the beginning of their publishing career. Check out this account from writer Derrick Jensen.

For me, writing has gotten much easier. If writing were as hard for me today as it was fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t be writing. Life is too short to work that hard at something that feels so uncomfortable. Part of the earlier sensation of difficulty and discomfort for me, though, wasn’t the writing itself. It was frustration because my skills didn’t match my reach. In other words, when writing felt difficult, which most of the time it did, it was almost always because I didn’t have the skills, information, or perspective to be able to adequately to convey whatever I was trying to communicate. (Jensen 2004, 72, my emphasis)

Sound familiar? You’ll be heartened to know that Jensen is now an award-winning author who has published at least 21 books on a broad range of topics. He’s a perfect example of how verbal ability increases with practice.

You can decrease the time it will take you to acquire writing expertise by using the power of neuroplasticity to deepen and automate some of the writing skills that cause you anxiety when you write. Learn some grammar. Increase your vocabulary. Learn a few more sentence structures. Practice writing the same sentence using a variety of structures. Practice writing sentences with the same content for a variety of audiences. Your brain will reward you with a more fluid writing process and a greater ability to focus on structure and analysis. Writing will get easier for you.

Increasing Mental Focus

Strong mental focus is closely related to skillful use of verbal ability. Because the capacity of working memory is limited, it’s crucial to be able focus on a specific task when other cognitive tasks are competing for working memory resources, or as psychologist Daryl Fougnie puts it, “selectively process information” (Fougnie 2008, 1). If you think of writing a chapter or an article as a series of writing problems to be solved, you can see how the ability to focus on one problem or a single category of problems would be useful. Instead of thinking about spelling and syntax and organization and analysis all at the same time, most writers separate these tasks and attend to at least some of them separately. As your level of writing expertise increases, you’ll be able to do more tasks simultaneously because some of them will be stored in long-term memory and won’t take up working memory capacity (Kellogg 2001; Olive and Kellogg 2002).

One good way to increase your ability to focus attention is to regularly do something that puts you in a meditative state. One study suggests that focused-attention meditation–the type of meditation where you focus on controlling attention and regaining it when the mind wanders–strengthens three skills that increase your ability to focus on a specific topic or task longer: 1) “the monitoring faculty that remains vigilant to distractions without destabilizing the focus”; 2) “the ability to disengage from a distracting object without further involvement”; and “the ability to redirect focus promptly to the chosen object” (Lutz et al. 2008, 164). Another study found that as little as 11 hours of traditional Chinese meditation increases the amount of white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, part of a network that is related to the ability to self-regulate (Tang et al. 2010).

If you’re willing to spend a little money for a training program to increase your mental focus, check out the BrainHQ program (see below). Michael Merzenich and a team of colleagues designed the program based on the principles of neuroplasticity. One of the areas it focuses on is attention. (I have no relationship with BrainHQ; I just think it’s a good resource.)

One final note about attention: Be extra careful with yourself after you’ve suffered an interruption. That’s when you’ll make mistakes (Foroughi et al. 2014). You’ll misspell words or even type the wrong word. You’ll return to a different place in your file than the place where you were working before you got interrupted. Just be aware that the work you do in the period after something broke your attention will need a closer second look.

Learn More


Costandi, Moheb. 2013. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: The Human Brain. London: Quercus.

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin.

Merzenich, Michael. 2013. Soft-Wired: How the Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. San Francisco: Parnassus Publishing.

Merzenich, Michael. 2014. “How Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.” Talk given at Mind & Its Potential conference, Chatswood, Australia. YouTube video,


Grammar Books

Casagrande, June. It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2010.

This tiny paperback punches well above its weight. It’s a seminar on sentence writing, including all the things that can go wrong and how to fix them. If you have just ten minutes a day to work on your verbal skills, dip into this one.

Longknife, Ann, and K. D. Sullivan. The Art of Styling Sentences. Hauppage, N.Y.: Barron’s, 2012.

The strength of this slim paperback is its description of twenty basic types of sentence structure. If you need to expand your repertoire of sentence types, this is the book for you.

Rosen, Leonard J., and Laurence Behrens. The Allyn & Bacon Handbook. 5th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2003.

Get your hands on this from a used bookseller if you can. It’s a gem. It has a detailed index inside the front cover so you can quickly find exactly what you’re looking for. The chapter topics are excellent. This is a superb place to start when you’re looking to increase your verbal ability. Sections include “Understanding Grammar,” “Writing Correct Sentences,” “Writing Effective Sentences,” “Using Effective Words,” and “Using Punctuation.”

Stilman, Ann. Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation. Revised and updated. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2010.

The strength of this guide are sections 3, “Structure and Syntax,” and 4, “Style.” Stilman covers areas of writing skill that newer academic writers often struggle with and that aren’t often covered in writing manuals. At the end of the book is a useful, albeit brief, section called “Suggestions for Self-Improvement.”

Williams, Joseph M. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. 11th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

If you get just one book to help you with writing skills, get this one. It’s gone through many editions and all are good. Written by a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Chicago, this book explains basic principles and provides exercises so you can practice your new skill. Although Williams doesn’t label his topic as such, this book focuses on the metacognitive aspects of writing: asking questions about what you write, solving problems with your sentences and paragraphs, and thinking about the needs of your readers.

Williams, Phil. Word Order in English Sentences. 2nd ed. Brighton: Phil Williams.

This is a topic that style manuals rarely discuss. There’s a secret body of knowledge about order of words in fluent English sentences. Phil Williams shares the decoder ring.


Grammar Websites

Grammar Revolution:

Site owner Elizabeth O’Brien offers numerous resources that include a PDF titled “The Beginner’s Guide to Grammar,” video grammar lessons, and a guided multimedia course in grammar called The Get Smart Grammar Program. O’Brien’s resources work well for adult learners.


Increasing Mental Focus

Gladding, Rebecca. 2013. “This Is Your Brain on Meditation: The Science Explaining Why You Should Meditate Every Day.” Psychology Today, May 22.
McPherson, Fiona. “Meditation’s Cognitive Benefits.” About Memory, n.d.,
Schulte, Brigid. 2015. “Harvard Neuroscientist: Meditation Not Only Reduces Stress, Here’s How It Changes Your Brain.” Washington Post, May 26.
Scott, Elizabeth. 2018. “How to Get Started With a Focused Meditation Practice.” verywellmind, July 31.
Schwartz, Jeffrey M., and Sharon Begley. 2009. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: HarperCollins.

If you’re interested in more knowledge about the parts of the brain that are involved with attention (and there are many), you should check out the last chapter, “Attention Must Be Paid.”

Zylowska, Lidia, and Daniel Siegel. 2012. The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD: An 8-Step Program for Strengthening Attention, Managing Emotions, and Achieving Your Goals. New York: Random House.

Even though this book is marketed to adults with ADHD, it’s an excellent resource for anyone who is looking to increase their ability to focus. The chapters take you through a guided program of gradually increasing the cognitive skills that will lead to stronger focus.

BrainHQ Program.

In contrast to other brain-training programs, this one was designed in consultation with Michael Merzenich. It’s based on the key neuroscientific principles of repetition, incremental improvement, feedback and suggestions for improvement, and rewards for success. BrainHQ provides a lot of information about the neuroscience behind its design. One of the key areas of focus is attention. It’s a paid program of training, but the cost is quite reasonable.



Costandi, Moheb. 2013. 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: The Human Brain. London: Quercus.

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin.

Foroughi, Cyrus K., Nicole E. Werner, Erik T. Nelson, and Deborah A. Boehm-Davis. 2014. “Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work?” Human Factors 56, no. 7: 1262–1271.

Fougnie, Daryl. 2008. “The Relationship between Attention and Working Memory.” In New Research on Short-Term Memory, ed. Noah B. Johansen, 1–45. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

Jensen, Derrick. 2004. Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Kellogg, Ronald T. 2001. “Competition for Working Memory among Writing Processes.” American Journal of Psychology 114, no. 2: 175–191.

Lutz, Antoine, Heleen A. Slagter, John D. Dunne, and Richard J. Davidson. 2008. “Attention Regulation and Monitoring in Meditation.” Trends in Cognitive Science 12, no. 4: 163–169.

Merzenich, Michael. 2013. Soft-Wired: How the Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life. San Francisco: Parnassus Publishing.

Olive, Thierry, and Ronald T. Kellogg. 2002. “Concurrent Activation of High- and Low-Level Production Processes in Written Production.” Memory & Cognition 30, no. 4: 594–600.

Pascual-Leone, Alvaro. 2006. “The Brain That Plays Music and Is Changed by It.” Annals of the New York Academy of Science 930, no. 1: 315–329.

Rogowsky, Beth A., Pericles Papamichalis, Laura Villa, Sabine Heim, and Paula Tallal. 2013. “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students.” Frontiers in Psychology 4: article 137.

Rogowsky, Beth A., Pericles Papamichalis, Laura Villa, Sabine Heim, and Paula Tallal. 2013. “Neuroplasticity-Based Cognitive and Linguistic Skills Training Improves Reading and Writing Skills in College Students.” Frontiers in Psychology 4: article 137.

Stewart, Lauren. 2008. “Do Musicians Have Different Brains?” Clinical Medicine (London) 8, no. 3: 304–308.

Tang, Yi-Yuan, Qilin Lu, Xiujuan Geng, Elliott A. Stein, Yihong Yang, and Michael I. Posner. 2010. “Short-Term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, no. 35: 15649–15652.


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