The Body Keeps the Score

Hemingway Writing

There’s an old saying that nothing bad can happen to a writer because it’s all inspiration. We’ve heard about writers pouring their hearts onto the page to confront and expel inner demons. Edgar Allen Poe. H.P. Lovecraft. Ernest Hemingway. For them, writing was therapy.

Now we have science that confirms that insight:

It is now widely accepted that stressful experiences — whether divorce or final exams or loneliness—have a negative effect on immune function, but this was a highly controversial notion at the time of Pennebaker’s study. Building on his protocols, a team of researchers at the Ohio State University College of Medicine compared two groups of students who wrote either about a personal trauma or about a superficial topic. Again, those who wrote about personal traumas had fewer visits to the student health center, and their improved health correlated with improved immune function, as measured by the action of T lymphocytes (natural killer cells) and other immune markers in the blood. This effect was most obvious directly after the experiment, but it could still be detected six weeks later.

Numerous experiments have since replicated Pennekbaker’s findings. Writing experiments from around the world, with grade-school students, nursing-home residents, medical students, maximum-security prisoners, arthritis sufferers, new mothers, and rape victims, consistently show that writing about upsetting events improves physical and mental health. This shouldn’t surprise us: Writing is one of the most effective ways to access an inner world of feelings that is the key to recovering from genuine trauma and everyday stress alike.

The goal is a sound mind in a sound body. It’s not either/or. I’ve long felt that Cartesian dualism is as wrong-headed as it is mechanistic and dehumanizing, and that living and feeling and thinking as a whole person rather than as a ghost in a machine is the path to fulfillment. That theme often inspires my writing.

Rather than rejecting the body and nature as lowly, and the mind as somehow imprisoned in dumb matter, we need to grasp the unity of both and live — and write — accordingly.

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