The human brain is sponge-like, in that it continually absorbs from its surroundings, yet unlike a sponge it does not have a critical limit for absorption. The premise of new information pushing old knowledge from the mind is not true, but based on Victorian pseudoscience. What is true, however, is that the choice of influences upon the brain will affect that which is absorbed. In other words, by choosing positive and effective influences that facilitate learning, you can encourage your own mind to absorb more of what you would like it to.

Learning is a subconscious act, yet to become skilled—no matter the inherent natural ability—involves study. Whilst learning can be completed alone, study requires seeking external influence. When we reach the limits of our own ability, we either plateau or we increase our ability, and the only way to do so is by looking outside the self. The choice of external influence for study available today is wide and wonderful, which means you can be selective when deciding where to impart knowledge and detail from. You can choose based on suitability to you. In years past, however, that was not the case.

Victorian education was a luxury afforded to the middle and upper classes, as although literacy and numeracy were taught to working and lower class children from the middle of the era, it was basic lessons as opposed to a curriculum-led teaching system. The education system itself was classist, but also strongly biased. Before writing and mathematics were taught, the marking of letters and numbers had to meet strict aesthetic standards, as no person of note could have poor handwriting. This was undertaken with a slate board and piece of chalk, and writing with the right hand was an unquestionable requirement. As such, the right-handed were naturally privileged when compared to the left-handed and would move forward in education at the expected pace, whereas left-handed children were often held back or left behind as their handwriting would not meet the required standards.

Unlike education, science and medicine made extensive leaps during the Victorian age. With lobotomies already a popular treatment for mental illness, surgeons turned their attention to studying the brain. Volunteers—often prisoners seeking to avoid a death sentence—signed up, were strapped down, and realised too late when the surgeon brought out the bone saw that they may have made an error. The scalp would be peeled back and the top of the skull sawn off, allowing the surgeon to study the living brain in situ as their volunteer sat awake and aware. With the discovery of electricity, neuroscience jumped ahead. Needles were inserted into parts of the brain and a current passed through to determine what reaction the body would give.

One notable discovery at the time was that the left hemisphere of the brain controlled the right limbs and the right hemisphere the left limbs. As children who favoured their right hand tended to excel in academia, leading to successful careers in management, finance, brokerage, or other high-class pathways which were often open through family connections and nepotism, the conclusion was drawn that the left side of the brain was the more logical. Children who were right-brained—in that they were left-handed—instead were more likely to pursue the arts, performance, or some other abstract way of life, usually indulged by family wealth or inheritance, as they could not secure proper employment due to their poor handwriting and less successful education. This was deemed proof that the right half of the brain was the creative side, and the pseudoscience of left-brained and right-brained was born. Of course, lower classes were not even considered.

Both education and medical science have advanced considerably since the Victorians, yet the idea of one side of the brain being logical and the other creative still remains prominent, despite being unequivocally disproven. The reason it continues to permeate the public consciousness—including in academic circles—is due to the nature of the story that it tells. Whether the science is true is irrelevant when the statement aligns with the narrative of someone’s life. That is the power of storytelling: it is more than a good yarn; it tells you something of yourself.

Writing, in all forms, is storytelling. A poem tells a story as much as a non-fiction article. Words strung together create patterns which, when done effectively, are relatable to the reader. To write is to tell stories, but to write well is to elicit the story from the reader which they tell themselves.

Modern medical science has taught us that learning a new language alters the structure of the brain, rewriting your neural pathways; to speak differently you have to think differently. Similarly, to write better you must think better, and you do so by dismissing storytelling that satisfies your personal narrative and instead surrounding yourself with challenging influences backed up by facts. You also need to balance the way you learn. There are two types of learning: theoretical and practical. Studying theory facilitates improvement, but successful learning also requires practical exercises. Every lesson in each of my writing classes contains a practical aspect, along with theory. When it comes to a creative skill such as writing, one cannot truly exist without the other.

The first thing I wrote was a novel. Before short stories, before poetry, before non-fiction, before anything else, I wrote a book. It took years, but I reached the final point where I typed ‘The End’ and then I cast it aside. I could write, but I wanted to learn how to write well. I needed to understand the craft so I could write something greater. I had to rewrite my own neural pathways to ensure I had the ability to write better, so I could then learn the skills required. What I discovered was that I had a lot to learn, and I’ve spent years since honing and improving. I’ve read books on writing, listened to other writers talk about writing, asked questions and received advice on writing, and had my writing read and critiqued by other writers. I have written for publications and worked with editors. I have worked for publishers and become an editor. I spent five years as Editor-in-Chief of Thanet Writers. My column in the Isle of Thanet News has seen me shortlisted three times as a finalist for Kent Columnist of the Year. I have learned from peers, from mistakes, from readers, from practice, and I am still learning. Every writer is.

The classes I have created and developed here impart everything I have learnt and studied distilled into concise lessons with assignments. I have designed each to deliver as much as I can in the most effective ways I can manage, and every source I have used is listed at the bottom of each lesson to verify the statements and claims that I have made. This is not feel-good learning, or exercises in inflating the ego, but challenging and applied external influences to increase your ability and improve your writing craft.

This is how I see writing, written for you.

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Stanislas Dehaene, How We Learn: The New Science of Education and the Brain

Fiona Kumfor, Sicong Tu, Can Your Brain Really Be “Full”?, The Conversation/Scientific American, 2 June 2015

Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science

Joseph J. Pear, The Science of Learning

Henrik Jörntell, The brain: a radical rethink is needed to understand it, The Conversation, 16 March 2017

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Wilfred Carr (1980) The Gap between Theory and Practice, Journal of Further and Higher Education, 4:1, 60-69, DOI: 10.1080/0309877800040107

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