Using All Four Cognitive Functions as a Writer

My heart is so full as I write this. So many things going on in the world right now—both good and bad. It makes me reflect, not for the first time, on the tremendous gift given to writers in the simple fact that we have a place to put not just our feelings, but every other aspect of our cognitive experiences as humans.

(Right after I write this opening paragraph, a doe and her fawn gallop across my front yard, right out my office window, and my heart grows a little fuller with the good stuff. 🙂 Ahem…)

We often think of writing as an act of either imagination and/or logic. But because becoming a balanced writer is about nothing less than becoming a balanced human, it should be no surprise that the best writing makes use of everything. Specifically, today, I’m thinking of “everything” as the cognitive functions in the Jungian sense.

Most people are familiar with the Myers-Briggs system of personality typing, which was derived from C.G. Jung’s theory of four cognitive functions, two perceiving (Sensing and Intuition) and two judging (Feeling and Thinking), which he further divided into introverted and extroverted varieties. As someone who loves systems, patterns, and abstract theories, I’ve long found Jung’s concept of cognitive functions to be helpful in understanding the way I think—and, of course, the way I approach writing.

À la Myers-Briggs nomenclature, I type as an INTJ—or someone who favors Intuition and Thinking as my go-to power plays. This means that, for me, Feeling and Sensing are often neglected. I have spent many years working on better developing both of my weaker functions, not just for their own sakes, but because Intuition–Sensing and Thinking–Feeling form inherent polarities. One cannot operate without the other. Where my Sensing is weak, there must be a corresponding weak spot in my Intuition. Where my Feeling is underdeveloped, there will be a blind spot in my Thinking as well.

Quite some time ago, Victoria Nelson (@ledinvictory) tweeted me a request:

Hi! I believe that you’ve mentioned that you’re an INTJ (as am I). Do you ever find yourself caught in a perpetual Ni [Introverted Intuition] phase—the joy of planning/outlining? (I can build bigger and bigger plots & fantasy worlds forever!) And if so, how do you force yourself out and into a Te [Extroverted Thinking] space? This might make an interesting article if you think it would be widely interesting enough for others… Otherwise, I’m always trying to balance the two, not so successfully.

Although I’m always keen to discuss cognitive functions, I never got around to the article mostly because I felt it might only be of interest to fellow INTJs—and even though INTJs are disproportionately represented amongst writers, we’re still one of the least common personalities, supposedly making up only around 2% of the population. (If an article specifically on activating Te to get stuff done sounds appealing, whether you’re an INTJ or not, let me know in the comments. If there’s enough interest, we’ll finally make it happen.)

However, the more work I do on all my functions, the more pertinent I find their contributions to my creative life. So today, I thought I’d share some thoughts on developing all four of your cognitive functions. This is important no matter your type, no matter if you’re into Jungian functions, and no matter if you have a clue or a care what Jungian functions are.

We’re going to explore the four basic functions all humans use in perceiving (taking in information) and judging (activating and using that information). All four are crucial pieces in bringing to life stories of deep emotion, logic, verisimilitude, and vibrancy. Once we’re skilled at identifying how they work within our experiences of life, we can also better use them to find exactly the right “place” to “put” our own personal experiences within our writing.

How to Improve All 4 of Your Cognitive Functions as a Writer

Let me start with the disclaimer that although I’m a big fan of Jung’s cognitive-function theories, I often find the simplified approach of Myers-Briggs (and particularly its tests) to be a limited approach. That said, Myers-Briggs is a simplified entry point into the deeper understanding of the functions. If all you know about Myers-Briggs is your “letters,” I would encourage looking deeper into an understanding of not just the four main functions, but particularly the nuances of their introverted and extroverted versions.

That said, for simplicity’s sake and to make the information more useful to those who may not be interested in personality typology, today I’m just going to be talking about the four functions as broad categories without further defining them as introverted or extroverted.

1. Intuition

Intuition encompasses many definitions, most of them abstract—which is appropriate, since Intuition is decidedly an abstract function. When we speak of a sixth sense or a gut instinct, we’re often speaking of Intuition. I believe it is also deeply integrated with imagination, particularly visual imagination (as I’ve discussed recently). It can also be a viscerally physical experience, linked to emotions and Feeling.

For me, Intuition (as my dominant function) is inextricably linked to imagination—to the “dreamzoning” I often talk about. I will sometimes say, with delight, that my head is haunted. I don’t make things up; they just come to me—images, personalities, symbols, color, music, and light cobbled together like night dreams from my unconscious.

Strengthening Your Intuition:

Whether Intuition is a natural strength for you or not, how can you further develop it to aid you in writing?

Honestly, writing itself is a great intuitive exercise. Daydreaming, dreamzoning—whatever you want to call it—is a intrinsically fun exercise for most writers. Start paying attention to the mental images and symbols that pop up for you, even when you’re not actively using your imagination. “Follow” the pictures; see where they take you when they spontaneously move. And listen to your feelings, your physical reactions. When you get a “zing” or a shiver up your spine, it usually means your Intuition is signalling you’ve found something.

More than that, concentrate on identifying patterns. You know the feeling you get when you just know something? That’s your Intuition identifying patterns before you’re even conscious of them. This is the “story sense” most of us hone all our lives. Whether in regard to our own stories or someone else’s, we often just know when something isn’t working—even when we can’t yet logically identify what. Learning to read your Intuition and interpret its sub-linguistic hints is tremendously powerful in helping you write stronger stories.

2. Sensing

Sensing is the other half of the perceiving polarity, which means it necessarily works hand-in-hand with Intuition. And yet, Sensing is Intuition’s opposite. Whereas Intuition is abstract, Sensing is concrete. Whereas Intuition is most accessible in dreams, Sensing interfaces with the physical world.

At first glance, Intuition might seem more useful to writers. But without a strong relationship with the senses, a writer’s Intuition will become ungrounded. It will lack the verisimilitude of real-world observations and understandings. The patterns we think we’re identifying intuitively or our instinctive “knowing” will lack accuracy, simply because it lacks sensual data.

Strengthening Your Sensing:

As an INTJ, Sensing is my weakest function, my “baby” function. Unlike people whose Sensing is naturally more mature and developed, I’ve had to work hard to make sure I’m not over-relying on my Intuition at my Sensing’s expense. And how do I this? I work on noticing. What do I see, smell, hear, touch, and taste? What are people really saying, versus the subtext I naturally want to intuit?

Mindfulness and presence are wonderful tools, as is just about any kind of physical activity or new experience. It’s so easy for writers to live entirely in our inner worlds. Not only are most of us naturally “head” people, but we spend much of our time inside at our desks seeing only what is on the screens and in our imaginations. In order for our Intuition to create worlds out of nothing, we have to feed it gobs of sensory information. Go outside, get into your body, talk to people, exercise, eat, reach, listen, sniff, notice.

3. Thinking

As a cognitive function, Thinking specifically refers to how we may use a logical metric to interpret or “judge” the neutral information we’ve gathered via our perceiving functions of Intuition and Sensing. Thinking isn’t so much the “chatter” in the front of our brains, which we commonly reference as “thoughts,” and more the system through which we organize and validate information into what we consider sensible and actionable ideas.

Writers often have a polarized relationship with Thinking. On the one hand we often consider ourselves “Thinkers”—people who enjoy ideas, who are comfortable inside our own heads, and who pursue writing as the art of thinking clearly.

And yet, writers can also grow frustrated with Thinking when we view it as too orderly and logical to coexist with the chaotic freedom of true creativity.

Still, skillful Thinking is what allows writers to employ the principles of story theory and to communicate in ways universal enough to resonate with other humans.

Strengthening Your Thinking:

There are many ways to strengthen Thinking—not least trying to write a coherent novel. Logically processing and mastering complex systems such as story structure, not to mention employing the systemic and causal logic necessary to piece together any working plotline, is a fantastic way to strengthen your Thinking.

More than that, you can learn to analyze your own thoughts as a way of identifying your own metrics. This will allow you to increase your mental precision by strengthening those metrics that are truly logical, while weeding out others that prove faulty or prone to unreasonable leaps. In observing your own thoughts, try to understand why you reach certain conclusions.

Ask yourself: What facts brought you to this understanding? Where did you employ Intuition—and how can you prove or disprove your own theories by seeking additional sensory or factual data? Debate yourself as rigorously as you would an ideological challenger.

4. Feeling

Feeling is often misunderstood. When we discuss our “feelings,” we are often talking simply about our emotions or moods—and we often dismiss both as unworthy of making proper judgments about what we should think or do. But Feeling goes much deeper, joining forces with our Intuition to prompt a powerful and trustworthy, if sometimes unexplored and misunderstood, interpretation of ourselves and our experiences.

As the partner of Thinking in the Judging polarity, Feeling is in many ways generative of thought, rather than the other way around. As someone who has repressed Feeling for most of my life (in part, perhaps, because it is my third function as an INTJ), I continue to realize how out of touch I have become even with being aware of my own Feeling sometimes. But I’ve also come to realize that the earlier I identify the cause of that sinking feeling in my stomach or my inner resistance to something, the less work my Thinking has to do to figure things out on the way to the right conclusion.

Strengthening Your Feeling:

As I mentioned at the start of the article, the world is currently so full of feels—probably no more than usual, but it sure seems unprecedented. As a result, I don’t think it’s just Thinker types who are sometimes tempted to push away the Feeling. But in rejecting overwhelming emotions and sensations, we not only ultimately reject the wonderful emotions as well, we also miss the opportunity to strengthen our ability to make our most powerful, truthful, and often empathetic decisions.

As writers, Feeling is deeply necessary if we are to write stories of emotional truth. Indeed, many of us come to the page as an opportunity for catharsis—a place to put our Feeling when we don’t know what else we can productively do with it. Via our characters, we have the opportunity to explore all our feelings—those that are mature, those that are immature, those that are celebrated, those that are unwanted, those that we long to manifest in our lives, and those that frighten us with their potential consequences.

Story creates for us a simulation in which we can understand the full meaning of our Feeling, as well as how to use it to make responsible judgments out in the real world where our lives and other people’s lives are at stake. We should always be writing that which makes us feel deeply, that which thrills us and scares us, and that which pushes us to face our darkness on our way to becoming better people.

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Cognitive-function theory says we all favor some functions over others. If you can figure out which functions come naturally to you in both your writing and your life, you will also probably hit upon those you may overemphasize at the expense of the others. This gives you the opportunity to consciously work on enhancing your natural strengths, while also boosting those that are naturally less proficient. The more rounded your cognitive experience becomes, the more rounded you can become as both a writer and a person.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you use these cognitive functions as a writer? Tell me in the comments!

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