Writing: A Cognitive Activity
Over the course of this semester, I have been quite amazed at how my “brain has stretched” for lack of a better way to describe the phenomenon. The threshold concepts we have been studying in regards to writing have changed my outlook on various aspects of composition; this week is no exception. I have always been interested in how the human brain processes information, hence why I chose the field of psychology for my undergraduate degree. The title of this week’s threshold concept is, “Writing is a Cognitive Activity.” According to Dylan Dryer, one of the premises of writing is, “… if writing is always a social and rhetorical act, it necessarily involves cognition” (71). Further research suggests that not only is writing a social and rhetorical act but, “neural processes essential to writing must be successfully coordinated across different areas of the brain; revision, even for seemingly uncomplicated ‘errors’ is cognitively quite complex” (73).
The human brain has a workspace known as working memory. This is where bits of information are processed and stored for easy access in cognitive events. As Dryer mentions, “… writing is cognitive not only because it draws on the full resources of our nervous system but because it actively influences our nervous system as well” (73). Have you ever stopped to wonder how the human brain facilitates the thought process a writer undergoes when composing? Below is a short video by Trace Dominguez that describes how your brain actually powers your thoughts.
Have you ever noticed that writing a paper, article, or even blog post is easier and more enjoyable when you have an emotional connection to the topic being discussed? Charles Bazerman and Howard Tinberg explain this paradigm, “The emotional engagement of scientific writers for their subject may entail careful attention to evidence and reasoning grounded in prior work in the field and understanding of the theory and methodological principles of the field; yet without a passion for the subject that turns a writer’s full mind and thought to the task of producing new words and ideas, little of value would get written” (74-75). As writers, we love to write about topics in which we have an emotional connection or issues that we find relatable. I know for myself, one of the most challenging forms of writing I have experienced was the standard five-paragraph theme essay in high school. Writing exactly five paragraphs on something of little interest to myself, was not enjoyable. However, the repetitive style that was required led to a familiar situation explained by Chris Anson, “repeated practice of the same mental task or activity can lead to what psychologists call automaticity or unconscious competence, the application of a process or the retrieval of information that doesn’t require conscious attention” (77).
Leigh Hancock, an English instructor for Columbia Gorge Community College, explains to her students how writing involves the full brain. With each hemisphere of the brain specializing in different aspects, they must work together for elements involved in writing to manifest.
Not only is writing a cognitive process, but it also involves metacognition. Metacognition is the process of “thinking” about mental processes! As Tinberg suggests, “Metacognition is not cognition. Performance, however thoughtful, is not the same as awareness of how that performance came to be” (75). One form of metacognition employed by writers is the technique known as reflection. The goal of reflection for a writer is to consider why they made rhetorical choices they chose. As Kara Taczak stated, “… writers who are more attuned to conscious reflection make deeper choices” (79). This process gives writers an opportunity to learn from their methods, identify meaning behind their chosen style of rhetoric, and adapt future writing based on the knowledge they glean from studying their own preferences. Put simply, metacognition is a valuable methodology each writer has the ability to utilize to become a better writer. Taking time to understand their stylistic decisions will help them identify areas for change or development.
Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth Wardle, editors. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition. Utah State University Press, 2016.
Altmann, Gerd. Pixabay. 2019, pixabay.com/illustrations/board-think-structure-solution-765310/.
Anson, Chris M. “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 77-78.
Bazerman, Charles, and Howard Tinberg. “Writing is an Expression of Embodied Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 74-75.
Dominguez, Trace. “This is How Your Brain Powers Your Thoughts.” YouTube, uploaded by Seeker, 9 April 2017, youtu.be/yxUkUaV2VPs.
Dryer, Dylan B. “Writing is (Also Always) A Cognitive Activity.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 71-74.
Hancock, Leigh. “Whole Brain Writing.” YouTube, uploaded by Columbia Gorge Community College, 14 August 2014, youtu.be/uebN8sUvgsc.
“Reflective Writing.” Youtube, uploaded by SkillsTeamHullUni, 3 March 2014, youtu.be/QoI67VeE3ds.
Samuels, S. Jay, and Richard F. Flor. “The Importance of Automaticity for Developing Expertise in Reading.” Reading & Writing Quarterly, vol. 13, no. 2, 1997, pp. 107-121, doi:10.1080/1057356970130202.
Taczak, Kara. “Reflection is Critical for Writers’ Development.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 78-79.
Tinberg, Howard. “Metacognition is Not Cognition.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, Classroom Edition, edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State University Press, 2016, pp. 75-76.
“What’s Metacognition — and Why Does it Matter?” YouTube, uploaded by Edutopia, 12 October 2018, youtu.be/QJWsIJQHUxM.
Metacognition has really changed my life as a writer. It’s so important to not only think about what I’m writing, but how I’m writing it. What am I doing while I work? Truly, it’s mostly acting nuts and going into a sort of frenzy, but it works. It took me a while to realize that–I was definitely trying to be overly organized and normal for too long.
I will admit that reading all this cognition and metacognition stuff had my brain hurting! But they’re all totally right, that we do need to think about what write. In fact everyone needs to! I also really enjoyed the part where the book talked about passion and writing about things that you enjoy. Hopefully when we’re teaching our students can choose topics that they’re passionate about to write. Also I loved the video!
Hey Melinda! I think you did a great job of emphasizing the importance of metacognition and reflection in your post. Accepting these as vital parts of the writing process can be hard for some writers, especially myself. Sometimes after I write, and it is not something I am particularly happy with, I want to just throw it away and never look at it again. But I can’t learn from this way of thinking. Reflecting about your writing is probably one of the, if not the most, useful tool for improving with writing.