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Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere
has taken off.

Scientists (and writers) have long
known about the therapeutic benefits of writing
about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings.

But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism,
expressive writing produces many physiological
benefits.

Research shows that it improves memory
and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces
viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing
after surgery.

A study in the February issue of the
Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged
in expressive writing just before treatment felt
markedly better, mentally and physically, as
compared with patients who did not.

Scientists now hope to explore the neurological
underpinnings at play, especially considering the
explosion of blogs.

According to Alice Flaherty, a
neuroscientist at Harvard University and
Massachusetts General Hospital, the placebo theory
of suffering is one window through which to view
blogging.

As social creatures, humans have a range
of pain-related behaviors, such as complaining, which
acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied,” Flaherty
says.

Blogging about stressful experiences might
work similarly.

Flaherty, who studies conditions such as
hypergraphia (an uncontrollable urge to write) and
writer’s block, also looks to disease models to explain
the drive behind this mode of communication.

For
example, people with mania often talk too much.
“We believe something in the brain’s limbic system
is boosting their desire to communicate,” Flaherty
explains.

Located mainly in the midbrain, the limbic
system controls our drives, whether they are related
to food, sex, appetite, or problem solving.

“You know
that drives are involved [in blogging] because a lot of
people do it compulsively,” Flaherty notes.

Also,
blogging might trigger dopamine release, similar to
stimulants like music, running and looking at art.

The frontal and temporal lobes, which govern speech
—no dedicated writing center is hardwired in the
brain—may also figure in.

For example, lesions in
Wernicke’s area, located in the left temporal lobe,
result in excessive speech and loss of language
comprehension.

People with Wernicke’s aphasia
speak in gibberish and often write constantly. In light
of these traits, Flaherty speculates that some activity
in this area could foster the urge to blog.

Scientists’ understanding about the neurobiology
underlying therapeutic writing must remain
speculative for now.

Attempts to image the brain
before and after writing have yielded minimal
information because the active regions are located so
deep inside.

Recent functional magnetic resonance
imaging studies have shown that the brain lights up
differently before, during and after writing, notes
James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of
Texas at Austin.

But Pennebaker and others remain
skeptical about the value of such images because
they are hard to duplicate and quantify.

Most likely, writing activates a cluster of neurological
pathways, and several researchers are committed to
uncovering them.

At the University of Arizona,
psychologist and neuroscientist Richard Lane hopes
to make brain-imaging techniques more relevant by
using those techniques to study the neuroanatomy of
emotions and their expressions. Nancy Morgan, lead
author of the Oncologist study, is looking to conduct
larger community-based and clinical trials of
expressive writing.

And Pennebaker is continuing to
investigate the link between expressive writing and
biological changes, such as improved sleep, that are
integral to health.

“I think the sleep angle is one of
the more promising ones,” he says.

Whatever the underlying causes may be, people
coping with cancer diagnoses and other serious
conditions are increasingly seeking—and finding—
solace in the blogosphere.

“Blogging undoubtedly
affords similar benefits” to expressive writing, says
Morgan, who wants to incorporate writing programs
into supportive care for cancer patients.

Some hospitals have started hosting patient-
authored blogs on their Web sites as clinicians begin
to recognize the therapeutic value. Unlike a bedside
journal, blogging offers the added benefit of
receptive readers in similar situations, Morgan
explains: “Individuals are connecting to one another
and witnessing each other’s expressions—the basis
for forming a community.”

{Adapted from ‘Psychology Today}

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