Peer-reviewed goosebumps: academic writing as a transmission of energy

9 min readFeb 18, 2024

Have you ever read a paper that just gave you chills of excitement or just gave you a massive shot of energy? What is it like to write a paper in that mode?

By Joost Vervoort

Joyously queer Netflix show She-Ra and the Princesses of Power — all about unleashing magical life energy in the face of oppression.

I was having tea last week with a friend who is struggling to find the right framing for her PhD. As both a researcher and an artist but working in a field outside of artistic practice, she struggles with the rather soulless standards of writing in much of the work she engages with, and with the pressure to conform to this dry discourse and focus on dry subject matter.

I told her that though it’s true that academic writing can be very dry, there is no reason that academic articles can’t crackle with inspiration and energy. As I started sending her examples, re-reading some of them, and asking around (including in this Twitter thread), I started to reflect on the importance of this question.

Emotional energy makes the world go round

My thinking about research articles as conduits for energy has a theoretical context. The work that has given me the most energy in recent years is Erika Summers-Effler’s writing about, fittingly enough, emotional energy. I’ve mentioned her work many times here, and for good reason. Erika draws on the work of Randall Collins, first introduced to me by Anticiplay PhD researcher Carien Moossdorff. Emotional energy is an important variable in this branch of cultural sociology. According to Collins, people are often seeking emotional energy in social interactions. An increase of emotional energy can be described as an energy boost that is specifically associated with a sense of agency and possibility. Erika writes about how groups (such as social action groups) and individuals (such as people revered as mystics) can provide emotional energy. In Buddhism, there is the notion of transmission — the teacher giving the student a direct transfer of energy and wisdom in a way that transforms something in the student. Also very relevant here is the work that Hartmut Rosa has done on the many ways in which the world is made up of relational resonances — how people and ideas resonate with each other matters, and embodiment plays a big role in this. Furthermore, failures of resonance matter as well.

Seeing the world through the lens of emotional energy and resonance is very powerful — it is a very direct and embodied way of looking at social interactions, political processes and more. I’ve found that it requires being in touch with my own body and energetic experience. As my perspective shifted more to a focus on the emotional energy and resonance of interactions, I started to notice that I was engaging with academic writing and reading in this way as well.

How do you engage with the energy of a paper? It’s a form of imaginal practice. You listen to it with your body. You notice what imagery comes up, and how this imagery resonates with what you are feeling energetically in your body. You notice the cycle of body energy, emotions, thoughts and imagery as you go through it. This should also work if you’re low on visual imagery — just feel into everything else. Become an active resonance chamber for the writing. Great papers just tend to hit you even without this kind of practice. But consciously engaging with a paper’s energy might open up new avenues of thought and motivation.

High energy academic writing

Why does the energy dimension of academic writing matter? To quote the first sentence of almost any sustainability article: the world is in crisis. It forces a hard look at what the value of all this academic production really is, especially if it comes from the pressure to publish or perish. I think that it’s not too strong to say that academic work that does not desire to connect energetically to its readers borders on ivory tower irresponsibility. As researchers, especially in fields related to social change, we should be thinking about how our writing energizes our peers, our students, and society. This probably means writing fewer papers, but writing them from a place of connection to what we really care about. It also means asking whether something you want to communicate should really be a paper, or whether its energy is better expressed in another format.

Understanding clearly what factors make papers work as energy conduits would make for interesting research. Obviously it’s extremely personal. But if I look at the papers people have sent me that they have experienced as boosts of energy, some patterns already stand out.

First of all, it’s clear that for research articles to act as energy conduits the content does not have to be positive or optimistic. Anger or critique can provide emotional energy when paired with a possibility for action — many of the Twitter folks I asked proposed combative, angry papers as energizing. A very lucid and clear analysis can be energetically powerful. Strong use of metaphors and resonant storytelling can be sources of energy. Clarity about the urgency of the challenges that the article responds to and honesty about the political and power contexts that the research is embedded in can be sources of energy as well. Humor and playfulness can be energizing. My favorite types of papers are the ones that are profound paradigm shifts that disrupt my entire way of looking at the world and release a lot of energy in the process — it’s a very psychedelic effect. Generally, I would say that papers that provide a real shot of energy probably required some courage to write because of the ways they engage with deep and difficult issues, or break away from conventions. Courage in, energy out.

I don’t think that most research articles have to be widely accessible and energizing to massive or generic audiences. But I think it would be powerful to consider how your academic writing might be a conduit of energy to at least your target audience. Maybe it’s ten fellow academics. Maybe it’s a weirdly specific mix of academics and practitioners working to change some societal domain. Maybe it’s a very scattered and disparate group of people who pick up your work, and it’s hard to predict who will be touched by it. With this in mind, what happens when you think of your writing as a transmission of energy to your readers?

There’s a relationship here to the debate about journal paywalls and open access publications — since these can also be understood as obstacles to an energy flow between academia and the rest of society. Articles with a clear energy signature that are open access can, in turn, be picked up by non-academic media and conveyed in an energetically powerful way as well.

Writing and reading in an embodied energy mode may also be a valuable way to counteract the potential glut of AI based writing. At the very least, it counters it experientially. ChatGPT doesn’t have a body and can’t feel into writing energetically powerful text, it can only mimic it.

How far can we go when we think about the energy of research papers? It turns out that a lot more is possible than you think. Copernicus Institute colleague Josie Chambers led an excellent research article about collaborative and co-productive processes between different people focusing on sustainability transformations for major sustainability journal Global Environmental Change. But Josie is a musician as well as a researcher. She came up with the brilliant idea to develop the paper into a musical abstract. The result, created with fellow musician and researcher Noor Noor, is a song that shows how the different energies and rhythms of different perspectives interact in collaboration. A paradigm-shifting new way of making the energy of a paper viscerally accessible, and the coolest thing ever. Let’s hope we see a lot more paper-based music.

In She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, the energetic heart of a magical planet has been bound by colonialist technology seeking to exploit it and turn its natural power into a weapon.

My experience with writing in the energy mode

I am coming at this from a background in environmental science, where ‘powerful’ writing was never really a focus in my training at all. But in recent years I’ve tried to shift my ambitions from just writing ‘clearly’ to writing in a way that fosters energy. My friend and collaborator Roy Bendor opened my eyes to this when we worked on the article ‘Scenarios and the Art of Worldmaking’. Roy’s style set the tone for much of the article, and I could tell that he understood himself as a writer, not only a researcher. He clearly sought to inspire and energize our readers. Talking about paper-based music: my band Terzij de Horde later used our paper as an inspiration for a song.

The shift to writing for emotional energy started to touch everything. At a smaller scale this energy approach to writing has meant that I really look at every sentence I write and ask myself — do I get energy from the way this sentence is expressing ideas? Again, the energy associated with a sentence or section is often associated with its clarity, imagery, its metaphors, its storytelling, its willingness to connect to difficult emotions, to issues of power and politics, and the ways in which it breaks old frames and makes space for the new.

I try to infuse energy into my academic writing whenever i can. A paper will come back from reviewers, and maybe I’d written it in a time when I wasn’t so in touch with this energy dimension of writing. And the revision would give me the opportunity to infuse energy into the new version.

I’ve also experimented with this energy focus in writing in my supervision of PhD students, and it seems not only to make the writing better, but also more enjoyable to do, and easier to stay focused on. Most recently, I’ve started to follow the common practice of writing a fair bit of energy-infused text as soon as I wake up.

Following the energy in research

But this embodied, energy-focused reading and writing also started to open up deeper questions about the focus of my work. What did I really care about? What research ideas and practices energized me in a way that made it easier to energize my writing in turn? What would be risky but important to write about?

I’ve done a lot of research in the world of foresight. There is something about the framing of the world in terms of technical scenarios that, at least for me, just doesn’t engage the full human experience, and that seemed to act like an energy block of sorts. My search for more energetically connected research led to a shift of focus to other forms of imaginative work that were more embodied, and situated more in society — such as activism or mainstream media. The notion of imagination infrastructure struck me as an energetically powerful pairing — combining a focus on societal imagination with the concreteness of infrastructural, and therefore financial, political and physical dimensions. Most recently, I’ve focused on infrastructures of mystery, again from an interest in mobilizing latent societal energies in research and in writing. I’m starting to research psychedelics for the same reason.

I’ve written a lot of blogs because they offered me a freer format in which to try and discover how to write in a way that resonates energetically and about issues that I am still experimenting with. This blog writing practice is now feeding back into research articles and project proposals.

I know I’m a weirdly meta example: I try to write energetically by literally writing about emotional energy. I think I still have a lot to learn. But as I’ve leaned into this energy perspective on writing, I’ve had really cool responses from very unexpected directions — people telling me my work has really resonated with them, energized them. Music to my ears. And so I keep following this approach. I hope it’s useful to you as well.

Some energy hits

Let me end by spotlighting a few of the papers from a recent twitter thread where I invited people to share the work that gave them a shot of energy. Responses included:

Clearly, activistic academic writing is inspiring people!

Some of my own contributions next to Erika Summers-Effler’s work included this fantastic paper by John Robinson proposing an alchemical perspective on sustainability transformations and this brief but powerful reflection by Karen O’Brien on a quantum approach to climate action. Both articles that work at the level of paradigm shifts, which is clearly the kind of thing that gives me goosebumps. What about you? Add to the Twitter tread if you have more suggestions!

Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. He leads the NWO Vidi project Anticiplay and is a leading researcher on the Horizon Europe project STRATEGIES which focuses on the transformation of the European game industry. He sings about the global crisis in Terzij de Horde.




An NWO Vidi research project • Exploring how games can help imagine & realize sustainable futures • Games For Better Futures & Futures For Better Games 🎮