Michael Corballis Ph.D.

The Recursive Mind

Are We in Our Right Minds?

Let the mind exploit whatever realms of fancy it wanders into.

Posted Feb 02, 2015

“Tell me where is Fancy bred. Or in the heart or in the head?” So sings the singer in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, while Bassanio ponders a difficult decision. Modern neuroscience opts for the head, or more specifically the brain, and everybody now seems to know that it’s specifically in the right side of the brain that deals with emotion and creativity. Betty Edwards’ best-selling book on teaching art, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, is now in its fourth edition and continues to sell millions of copies. Google “right brain and creativity” and you get around 27 million hits; substitute “left brain” and you get a paltry 4 million, mostly off-setting the dull, pedestrian left against the luminous, flamboyant right.  Even the dictionary agrees. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers the following definitions:

Right brained adj: 1. Having the right brain dominant. 2. Of or relating to the thought processes involved in creativity and imagination. 3. Of or relating to a person whose behavior is dominated by emotion, creativity, nonverbal communication, and global reasoning rather than logic or analysis.

So where does all this come from?

It has long been known that the left brain in most of us is dominant for language, leading to the question of what the right brain might do. I recently explained to my five-year-old granddaughter that when she speaks it is really the left side of her brain that does the talking. I then asked her what the right side does. “Oh,” she said, “it just lazes about.”

Maybe so, but we’d like to think it does more than that. After all, as a hunk of meat the right brain is just as big as the left, so it must do more than just fill half the skull.

More colorful notions of what the right brain might do were stirred by the famous split-brain studies in the 1960s. A series of patients had undergone an operation to disconnect the two sides of the brain for the relief of intractable epilepsy, and this allowed Roger Sperry (who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1981) and his associate Michael Gazzaniga to investigate the separate function of the two sides. They confirmed that left brain is indeed specialized for speech, but the right side seemed to have some nonverbal capacities—spatial, emotional, musical—although its limited verbal capacity has made it hard to find out exactly what it does.

The left-right distinction, though, soon blossomed into something more extreme, perhaps even reflecting a fundamental polarity in human nature. This yin-yang duality found resonance in political and military divisions of the late 1960s and 1970s. The left side of the brain was associated with the military industrial establishment of the West, the right side with the peaceful, creative East. In the catch cry “make love not war” it was left side that stood for war, the right side for love.

The idea that the right brain supplies us with creative energy persists beyond art and politics, even invading the business world. Again Google comes to our aid. “Right brain and business” throws up some 125 million hits, and again the 94 million hits elicited by “Left brain and business” is mostly to the detriment of the left relative to the right. A Psychology Today blog by Ray Williams, posted on June 10, 2010, and entitled “The right-brained executive,” suggests that we are entering “the age of right-brained thinking.”

Neuroimaging, though, offer little support for any right-brain ascendancy, or any specific role of the right brain in creative thinking. Instead, brain activity during creative tasks seems spread through a broad system known as the default-mode network. This occupies both sides of the brain, and seems to be turned on when our minds drift away from the present, and often interrupts whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing—reading a book, listening to a lecture, trying to solve a math problems. It is the network of mind wandering.

Our minds wander for about half of our waking hours, and it’s this mental drift that allows us to make connections we wouldn’t otherwise make, and come up with new ideas. As Steve Jobs put it, “Creativity is just connecting things.” So let’s not confine creativity to just one side of the brain, and let the mind exploit whatever realms of fancy it wanders into.

And let’s be tolerant of the dreamy kid at the back of the class, or the executive at the boardroom table with the half-closed eyes, doodling on his or her notepad. 

Image: Used with permission