Nori Muster’s experience writing her memoirs and books illustrates the human spirit’s instinct to heal. Nori speaks eloquently of her journey into health through her writing experience. Expressive writing has long been known for its mental-health benefits, such as organizing complex emotional experiences, putting people in touch with their innermost feelings and thoughts, helping them work through unresolved conflicts, helping them see things from a different perspective, helping them make sense out of their experience, and reducing stress (Land, 2014). Essential for trauma survivors, writing can externalize their feelings and help them gain emotional distance from the horrifying events (Bailey & Kress, 2010). (For a summary of studies about the above benefits, I refer the reader to H. Land’s upcoming book). One benefit of writing is that the process contains and releases overwhelming emotions, which tie up energy that one might otherwise use more productively. The fact that Muster wrote “obsessively,” as she says, and then was able to put her work aside for several years illustrates this cathartic benefit.
Although the numerous psychological benefits of writing include those summarized here, this commentary provides some thoughts through the lens of neurobiology. From this perspective, health means integration of previously dissociated or underdeveloped neural networks. In the words of Cozolino (2010), “We now assume that when psychotherapy results in symptom reduction, or experiential change, the brain has, in some way, reorganized and been altered (Kandel, 1998)” (p. 13). As Muster poured out the numerous experiences, feelings, and thoughts about her life in ISKON, she struggled to put the pieces together in some coherent fashion, to make sense out of them.
“Making sense” involves meaning making and requires accessing both the cognitive and emotional structures of the brain. Thoughts that lived just below Nori’s level of awareness, and doubts about the PR spins she was writing to explain and dismiss the many allegations leveled against the group began to take shape in her mind as she wrote. She began to recognize, and admit, the truth of the lies she had lived. We speculate that her brain was “reorganizing,” and her awareness of “struggling to make sense” out of her experience was the subjective feeling of that reorganization. Memories that were located in various disparate implicit neural networks, kept apart by cult rhetoric and mind-control techniques, began to come together, to be integrated with new meanings, new understandings. We might say she experienced an “Aha!” moment as her brain reintegrated and truth dawned.
Expressive writing involves and results in both bilateral and vertical integration of the brain. Horizontal integration is accomplished through writing when the left brain puts symbols on right-brain experiences. To explain: The limbic system, also known as the emotional brain, is more expanded in the right hemisphere, and the right hemisphere is plugged into the body through the autonomic nervous system. If emotional memories get “stuck” in the right brain, they will be held in somatic states where they have the power to cause high arousal when triggered.
In normal information processing, events are recorded in words through the speech center of the brain. However, during times of high stress, such as during traumatic events, the speech center, Broca’s area, shuts down. Thus, the event results in “speechless terror,” without the necessary symbols (words) to neutralize it. We suggest that writing activates Broca’s area, giving words to the memories, thereby reducing their power to cause post-traumatic havoc. In support of these speculations, research by Pennebaker found a congruence in brain-wave activity between the left and right hemispheres when people were asked to engage in writing about their lives. “The emotional and linguistic material was being processed and integrated simultaneously” (http://www.odysseyofthesoul.org/freomm/openingup.htm).
Muster’s account of how her writing helped her understand her experiences also illustrates vertical integration of the brain. The very act of writing one’s memoirs requires one to use higher cognitive functions to organize, articulate, and so on. These higher thought processes (primarily located in the prefrontal cortex) are brought to bear on the lower, emotional centers of the brain, integrating thoughts and feelings through the development and strengthening of vertical synaptic connections. The stronger these connections are, the more integrated the brain. The process is essentially what has been referred to as “mentalizing” (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2005)—i.e., thinking about one’s thoughts and processing one’s feelings.
Additionally, it is well-known that during traumatic events the hippocampus, implicated in long-term memory, is impaired. Events don’t get placed in their proper time and space folders, so the past often intrudes upon the present, causing confusion. We theorize that as Muster wrote about her experiences, she gave her hippocampus a jump-start in placing events into their proper temporal files. Having an accurate chronology of events helps to one to “make sense” out of random experiences.
The writing endeavor may have been particularly important for Muster, who came out of a spiritual group. According to Land, expressive writing might be particularly salient for people when issues of spirituality are at stake because it taps into the unconscious and
resonates with the paradoxes and mysteries inherent in life. Perhaps for that reason writing is so useful in resolving life’s existential and spiritual struggles which often have a paradoxical element within them. Because of these reasons the act of writing is a powerful vehicle for understanding the sacred life of the client and importantly, for enhancing spiritual growth and development. (H. Land, personal communication, November 2, 2013)
When Muster writes that she wrote “obsessively,” we can assume she was free-associating. Such writing relaxes the logical parts of the brain, which tend to censor our thoughts and emotions, in turn allowing the creative mind to flourish (Cameron, 2000). Through her writing experience, Muster got back in touch with her True Self, which illustrates Winnicott’s (1960) statement that “only the True Self can be creative and only the True Self can feel real” (p. 148). The True Self is the vital self, the self endowed with energy to live a life of joy and productivity. Muster illustrates this well.
Bailey, M., & Kress, V. (2010). Resolving child and adolescent traumatic grief: Creative techniques and interventions. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 5, 158–176.
Cameron, J. (2000). The artist’s way. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Cozolino, L. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2005). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.
Land, H. (2014). Spirituality, religion, and faith in psychotherapy: Evidence-based expressive methods for mind, brain, and body. Chicago, IL: Lyceum (in press).
Pennebaker, J. W. Opening up. Foundations for research and exploration of mind motivation. Retrieved from http://www.odysseyofthesoul.org/freomm/openingup.htm
Winnicott, D. W. (1960). Ego distortion in terms of true and false self. In The maturational process and the facilitating environment: Studies in the theory of emotional development, 1965 (pp. 140–152).
About the Author
Doni Whitsett, PhD, LCSW, is a Clinical Professor of Social Work at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. Dr. Whitsett teaches various courses in practice, behavior, and mental health. She has been working with cult-involved clients and their families for 20 years and gives lectures to students and professionals in this area. She has presented at national and international conferences in Madrid, Poland, Canada, and in Australia, where she helped organize two conferences in Brisbane. Her talks have included The Psychobiology of Trauma and Child Maltreatment (2005, Madrid) and Why Cults Are Harmful: A Neurobiological View of Interpersonal Trauma (2012, Montreal). Her publications include “The Psychobiology of Trauma and Child Maltreatment” (Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2006), “A Self Psychological Approach to the Cult Phenomenon” (Journal of Social Work, 1992), and “Cults and Families” (Families in Society, Vol. 84, No. 4, 2003), which she coauthored with Dr. Stephen Kent.