Your Best Life: Can journaling reprogram your brain?

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Research has shown the power of the pen to help us retain information, like while taking notes in school or making a to-do list. But some say it can it do far more, including strengthening goals, reframing habitual thoughts, dissolving creative blocks and diluting or overcoming trauma. You can become more observant, positive, productive, mindful, and happy.

There’s a strong connection between the act of handwriting (or drawing) and the brain. Indiana University research showed that the working memory areas of grade-schoolers’ brains lit up the most when forming letters by hand, and that college students retained a handwritten paragraph better after a week than a keyboarded one.

It’s interesting to think how that mechanism came to be in our brains before we developed written language; I also wonder if using hand sign language would have a similar effect, but I digress.

Writing tells the brain’s Reticular Activating System that “this is important,” and it then hunts for supporting parallels in daily life. You know how if you decide you want a green MINI Cooper you start seeing them everywhere? That’s the RAS at work. You’re not only remembering your goals but looking for opportunities to further them. An oft-repeated statistic is that you are 42% more likely to achieve a goal if you write it down.

Also, writing is not only helpful in waking life. If a problem is keeping you up at night, therapists recommend writing it down before you hit the pillow to let your subconscious begin working with it while you get much-needed Zzzzzs.


I’m not talking about the “what I did today” diary, which may have chronicled your ups and downs in middle or high school. I imagine that might help memories of your daily activities stick, but I’m talking here about journaling with a wider purpose.


Following the idea that writing down your intentions strengthens them, this can be as simple as writing down your goals regularly, or a goal-setting day planner like Chalene Johnson’s Push Journal. Breaking down your projects into smaller pieces will obviously help them get done, too. You can also investigate “bullet journaling” for to-dos and prioritizing.


Reframing your thoughts and what you notice daily will shift your outlook, and eventually your personality, dramatically. That’s a major benefit of mindfulness practices, too. Our brains have a negative bias to hunt out potential dangers and pitfalls, which can become an entrenched habit. With practice we forget to see the positive aspects of our lives. If you instead send the RAS on the hunt for the things that went right today, you’ll seeing more of them next week. In a positive feedback loop, your life feels full of good things, so you notice fewer negative ones. Perhaps you are complaining less, or approaching situations with a more open, neutral demeanor, improving your interactions at work and home.

Gratitude journals are great for this, and they don’t have to take long. For about eight months, I did the “Five-Minute” Journal, which offers five prompts, like “I am grateful for,” and “What could make today great?” in the morning, and “What did I learn today?” at night. I became tired of repeating myself over time, but I enjoyed it, and it was easy to fit in. I still name three things I’m grateful for before going to sleep.


Writing about difficult emotions has been shown in multiple studies to lessen trauma and even boost immune function. Dr. James Pennebaker (“Writing to Heal”) developed an expressive writing protocol based on writing (by pen, keyboard, or dictation) about a stressful event for fifteen minutes, over four days. His protocol recommends doing it four days in a row, but it can also be done within a month. Write continuously, without correcting for spelling or editing. This has been shown to be mildly distressing right after writing, but to greatly improve one’s mood overall, especially in response to that event.

One caution: a blog I read, by psychologist Dr. Gareth Furber, recommended that people with severe trauma history or under high stress undergo this training with the guidance of a professional therapist, because it will stir up some challenging memories and emotions. Furber also pointed out there are also protocols for writing about positive events, real or imagined.

Social psychologist Laura King made a flipside protocol asking you to imagine your best life, writing for 20 minutes over four straight days:

“Think about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all of your life dreams. Now, write about what you imagined.”

Two years later, with Chad Burton, King studied this prompt, written for at least 20 minutes over three consecutive days:

“Think of the most wonderful experience or experiences in your life, happiest moments, ecstatic moments, moments of rapture, perhaps from being in love, or from listening to music, or suddenly ‘‘being hit’’ by a book or painting or from some great creative moment. Choose one such experience or moment. Try to imagine yourself at that moment, including all the feelings and emotions associated with the experience. Now write about the experience in as much detail as possible trying to include the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that were present at the time. Please try your best to re-experience the emotions involved.”

With both, college students studied reported elevated mood immediately after writing and improved immune function for at least three months afterwards.


You’ve heard of writers who set their clock for their “morning pages”? Thank Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way,” who popularized the practice. It’s meant to fire up your creative juices and blast through, under or around any creative blocks holding you back from your best work.  Commit to a set amount of time or pages. You can have a prompt, consider a problem, or just write whatever comes into your head. “Free writing” is the same idea, just at any time of day.

We haven’t even covered dream journals. Ah, another day. Why not see which of these may speak to you and try one?