Psychology as Inspiration For The Writer’s Muse

Note from Livia:  A huge thank you to everyone for your support during the From Words to Brain promotion!  I'll have more to say about that next week.  For this week though, we have a guest post from Joanna Penn, author of Pentecost: A Thriller Novel.

The understanding of the human mind and behavior fascinates us and it’s why we are drawn back to fiction repeatedly. The lives of characters can inspire, warn or teach us about ourselves, so it’s inevitable that aspects of psychology will pervade literature. The discipline is often centred around case studies, detailed explorations into the life of an individual affected by some kind of psychological or neurological issue. These case studies can be a rich source of inspiration for the writer’s muse.

For this reason I love psychology and my bookshelves are full of fascinating tomes I delve into for inspiration. I studied psychology at college and in another lifetime I would have been a psychologist so when I decided to write a thriller, my heroine just had to be one! It gave me an excuse to revisit the subjects that have intrigued me for years. As writers, we need to feed our creative wells with information and experiences that merge together to form new ideas, and psychology is a rich source.

Here are some of my favorite examples that might also inspire your writing.

Bipolar disorder and creativity

“We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” This quote from the poet Byron is at the beginning of Kay Redfield Jamison’s book ‘Touched with Fire’, a brilliant insight into how the manic depressive spectrum is related to creativity. Kay is a clinical psychologist, a gifted writer and also has bipolar disease. She draws on personal anecdotes as well as stories of Van Gogh, William Styron, Ernest Hemingway and others to create a tapestry of experience that seems beyond the reach of those with more normal brain chemistry.

Memory loss and grief

‘HM’ was a young epilepsy patient whose brain surgery damaged his long term memory, but left procedural and working memory intact. The precise knowledge of his surgery and his willingness to be part of experiments on memory for the rest of his life made his case the backbone of memory studies. My neuroscience professor actually worked with ‘HM’ and the story she told of his sweet natured personality stuck with me. Every day he would perform tasks and forget that he did them yesterday or who the people that cared for him were. His case features in thousands of scientific papers but behind the initials was an individual whose personal memories were stuck in 1953. HM died in 2008. Memory loss and forgetting haunt us, as memories define who we are. ‘The Notebook’ is a fine example of the pain we suffer when ones we love lose all memory of us, a fictional representation of a heart-breaking human condition.

Neuroscience and science fiction

I challenge you to study neuroscience and not come up with story ideas! It’s a realm full of miracles and wonder. V.S Ramachandran documents Capgras’ Syndrome where a patient sees familiar and loved figures as imposters, just pretending to be who they say they are. There is the phantom limb that can be felt by stroking a patient’s face, and phantom pain that can be banished by a mirrored reflection. How about being able to see through your tongue? Paul Bach-y-Rita found neuroplasticity meant the brain could interpret other signals for perception other than just the eyes. This is now science fact, called lingual vision and will only be improved with time. Neuroscience is the cutting edge of brain research and by subscribing to blogs that report interesting new studies, you will find springboards to amazing ideas. Check out this article on Neuroscience fiction vs neuroscience fantasy.

Psychology and faith

This is my particular obsession as I also studied Theology and specifically the interconnection of psychology and religion. My thesis was on why people do things in the name of God and I used Stanley Milgram’s experiment on authority to explain how it might work. There are fantastic case studies in psychology of religion from William James, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud but in modern times, the field of neurotheology is emerging as the next frontier in understanding faith. Imagine a world where we can create an experience of God with a drug or by stimulating the temporal lobe in a machine. A world where we can take away belief with an operation. Such stories lie just below the surface of this fascinating area.

These aspects of psychology are just the beginning if you have a fascination with the human brain and behavior. You don’t need to be a scientist to understand and use the information either. With this source material and your imagination, there is an endless supply of rich creativity to be explored!

Joanna Penn is the author of Pentecost, a thriller novel, out now on
Joanna is also a blogger at : Adventures in Writing, Publishing and Book Marketing. Connect on Twitter @thecreativepenn


  1. What a fascinating discussion. It brings to mind that Mark Twain quote: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."

  2. I've always been fascinated with psychological disorders, even if I've never worked one into a story. I'd heard of a couple of these before, but thanks for bringing the others to my attention. (I only hope that by learning about all these conditions I don't overstimulate my muse.)

  3. @Amitha - absolutely! This was only a few of the ideas that inspire me about psychology - there are new findings every day, it's a fascinating field!

    @Nate - overstimulation is sometimes worth it :)

    Thanks for having me Livia.