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Expressive Writing as Therapy

In Moments of Being (1985), Virginia Woolf comments on the impact of writing To The Lighthouse on her feelings towards her mother, “I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and laid it to rest.” In this instance, expressive writing became a therapeutic action, allowing Woolf to come to a better understanding of the emotions she had never dealt with after her mother’s untimely death. While Woolf’s words are personal speculation, a study conducted last October by Baddeley and Pennebaker (2011) set out to test whether expressive writing would prove a valid form of therapy for soldiers recently reunited with their spouses after deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. Upon return, soldiers are more prone to develop mental illnesses such as PTSD, and also face an increased risk for domestic violence in their marriages.

For Baddeley and Pennebaker (2011), expressive writing means something rather different from Woolf’s experience in penning her novel. Participants write from their own point of view about traumatic, stressful or emotional events (Pennebaker and Beall, 1986). In this case, soldiers were instructed to, “to write about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings about the transition from deployment to being reunited at home.” They then completed surveys that evaluated their marital satisfaction at the beginning of the study, after one month, and then finally after six months.

Findings revealed that when soldiers engaged in expressive writing, their marital satisfaction increased within one month of the exercise as compared to those who wrote unemotionally. Interestingly, the change was even more pronounced for couples in which the soldier was heavily combat-exposed. For the same couples, yelling also decreased by six months.

While their work is preliminary, Baddeley and Pennebaker (2011) have shown that the possibilities for writing go far beyond aesthetic or monetary purposes. For soldiers, who are at such a high risk for mental health problems and emotional trauma, expressive writing might be another therapeutic outlet through which such issues can be resolved. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see if expressive writing will have a positive impact on those facing different kinds of trauma and mental illnesses.

By Kristen Delancey

Experiencing Woolf

My name is Kristen DeLancey, and I am a student working on the Woolf, Creativity and Madness project as part of the STRIDE program at Smith College. This past summer, when I first decided to work with Michele, I did not yet have a full understanding of what my job would be, and what I might learn. The only real background I had in entering into this collaboration was an interest in psychology and a love of Virginia Woolf. Yet even in those areas that connected me to the project, I was not at all experienced—I had only read one of Woolf’s novels, and had never taken a psychology class at all. Moreover, I had hardly any idea of what work I might be asked to contribute. But as I sit here writing this today, a little over five months after I began work on the project, I marvel at how much I have learned, and how much closer it has brought me to the work and mind of Virginia Woolf.

During my first meeting with Michele, I began to fully understand how different this would be from most professor-student research projects. First of all, there would be no lab coats, relatively little data, and absolutely no test tubes. Our “data” would come from books and articles— biographies of Woolf’s life by scholars like Hermione Lee and Julia Briggs, examinations of bipolar disorder and creativity by psychologists today, and of course, Woolf’s own writings. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of my work is being able to compare these different sources and find clues from Woolf’s world of the past and relate them to discoveries in the field of modern psychology. These studies become a lens through which to view Woolf’s life and work, allowing us to begin to understand the connections between her disorder and the remarkable manifestations of creativity in her writing.

My work is not completely rooted in research—more recently, I have helped take on website publicity, searching for other professors and scholars who share an interest in the kind of work I have taken part in. This process has resulted in a spreadsheet filled with the names of those we hope will appreciate the questions the website explores, and benefit from the information we have provided.

Though I may have known little about bipolar disorder, and even Virginia Woolf only a few months ago, today I have such a great appreciation for the life she lived and the work she was able to do, despite or because of her illness. I hope that others will see this passion in the website, and participate in this fascinating debate within psychology today.

Right Brain, Left Brain, Whole Brain

The notion that the throne of creativity lies in the right hemisphere of the brain is entrenched in our cultural vernacular. A Google search on “right brain and creativity” yielded over four million hits.  Flaherty (2011) challenges this standard.

In the right brain model of creativity the left analytic, rule-based brain is cast as an “anti-creative” force.  Cognitive exercises that suppress left brain activity are said to leave the artistic right side free of constraints, thus boosting creative output.  The experience of epileptic patients who undergo callostomy surgery refutes this assumption (Flaherty, 2011).  The surgery severs the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers connecting the right and left hemispheres.  Some patients with severe epilepsy find symptom relief when this bridge is cut leaving two independent sides that no longer communicate with one another.  The right brain creativity model predicts that these patients should experience increased creative ability, but the opposite is true. Callostomy patients show decreased creativity.

Right brain dominance also does not explain the hemispheric effects of artistic training.  According to Flaherty (2011), untrained musicians and painters do process what they see and hear via the right hemisphere, which tunes into novel stimuli.  However, trained musicians and painters, who no longer experience elements such as pitch, tempo, color, and line as new, process visual and auditory elements via the left hemisphere.

Finally, Flaherty (2011) posits that the right brain creativity model is out of synch with recent research on motivation and the brain.  Although the right brain perks up in response to unfamiliar events, it also prompts us to withdraw just in case the event is dangerous.  In contrast, the inquisitive left frontal cortex encourages us to approach and investigate.

Flaherty’s (2011) brief review of this literature highlights that creativity is really a whole brain process.


Flaherty, A. W. (2011).  Brain illness and creativity: mechanisms and treatment risks.  The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56, 132-142.



Welcome to our blog, or as we would rather call it, musings.These deliberations will traverse the territory between creativity and emotional well being via research, theory, clinical case study, history, and philosophy. Rooted in the spirit of scientific inquiry that compels us to explore divergent viewpoints, I hope these reflections rally readers to join the conversation.