The Attentive Tendency: when writing becomes a nootropic drug

In the 2011 film Limitless, Bradley Cooper’s character is a struggling writer who has just experienced a breakup and doesn’t know where to go next. Through a chance meeting, he begins taking a “smart drug” (nootropic) called NZT-48, which unlocks neurological pathways that show him the answers to just about everything.

It made me wonder: what is my equivalent to nootropics? What’s the one thing I can count on to unlock my own thoughts?

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Although the term “nootropic” (pronounced noah-tro-pik) is often mistranslated as “to turn the mind”, it more accurately means “toward the mind” (Greek words noos=mind, tropein=toward). Think about it this way: natural nootropics shouldn’t alter the mind but rather make it more aware of its own contents and capacity.

When I sit down to write, I have questions and no answers. I’m writing to explore and to decide. The act of writing forces me to pay attention to details, make connections, and dig deeper into my own mental storehouse of information.

Writing, I realized, is my smart drug.

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Nootropics heal and stimulate the cells in a way that’s nontoxic and not addictive. One website dedicated to brain health–Be Brain Fit–explains it this way:

Nootropics description

Natural nootropic substances range from amino acids like Theanine (found in green tea) to herbs like ginseng and substances like caffeine. And although writing is an activity rather than a physical substance, the act of writing can have very physical side effects–both when taken and when withdrawn from being taken.

When I’ve gone too long without sitting down to write, I begin to feel the physical side effects: brain fog, loss of focus, depression. By the same token, when I go too long without writing, a reintroduction can be jarring: anxiety, strong emotions, uncertainty. It’s all embarrassingly similar to withdrawal symptoms from coffee.

But at least writing is always there when needed. Because if I don’t take these moments to focus my thoughts through writing, I get lost in a daze. I become a funnel where all stimuli pass through me as soon as they enter.

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If you check out The Daily Infographic online, you might come across this infographic on how writing affects the brain. Here’s the portion that caught my attention:

Not only are you preventing life from passing you by unnoticed, but you’re discovering yourself along the way. Of all the quotes I’ve crossed about writing, there’s one from Flannery O’Connor that rings the most true: I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.

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Writing is a notable antidote to complacency. Sit down with pen and paper (or laptop and fingers), and it’s not long before you’re forced to take a good look at yourself. It is, in effect, the opposite of alcohol: writing is not meant to make us drown out our problems or become complacent, but to discover what our problems have always been.

In the book Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, the author Kathleen Norris explains the ancient concept of acedia as a “soul-weariness” or “spiritual sloth”, a complacency surfacing in the heat of an afternoon. I’ve found that midday is when I’m least likely to be successful in brainstorming or active attention, but somehow most likely to be experience a sudden revelation from without: an occurrence, a gift, a moment of notice, as if the clock knew that I needed to be moved.

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Like nootropics, writing can be taken in doses. Writing can be taken intentionally. But the important thing is to know the best dosage for your needs. Some writers do best on a set daily schedule, while others prefer to write when inspiration hits.

The hardest part is often to start. Once you get past the fear of writing and the writer’s block, then you have a chance to experience its ability to heal–the true precursor to new growth.

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Virginia Woolf once took note that a day plays out in two parts:

Every day includes more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.

I think Woolf was struggling to reconcile her passive body with her active mind. Daily life is so often populated with the mundane, the routine, the necessities, but Woolf used writing to keep her mind awake. She took each word of mundane activity–the cooking, the washing–and strung them together into one observation: that being coexists with nonbeing, and presence with nonpresence, and the rest is up to us.

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I write to rewrite this proportion of being to nonbeing. I seek to flip the equation: to bring being to the forefront of each day, to cover absence with presence, to be more attentive than passive. If I’m lucky, I’ll learn to conduct it like a symphony, where each showcases the other like violin and cello or bass and soprano, each in good measure.

Maybe you don’t write. Maybe you make music, or paint, or spend time in community. Whatever it is that you have, use it.

It will be enough.

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