Are You a Left-Brained or Right-Brained Thinker?

Rational and creative thought are more alike than you’d think

Posted Mar 14, 2016

Are you a left-brained thinker or a right-brained thinker? We all know that we use our left-brains for logical thinking and our right-brains for creative thinking. We also shape our self-image around the distinction between left-brain reasoning and right-brain creativity. “I’m just too logical to put up with that artsy-fartsy humanities nonsense,” says the left-brained engineer. “Why do you have to be so rigid?” asks the right-brained artist. “Don’t you have any imagination?”

The pop psychology notion of left-brain/right-brain is an example of what Georgetown University psychologist Adam Green calls “folk neuroscience.” In fact, the notion is just as nonsensical as that old chestnut about only using 10 percent of your brain. No matter how deeply these items of misinformation are ingrained in the collective consciousness, psychologists know that you use 100 percent of your brain—both left and right sides.

Likewise, Green maintains that the common distinction between rational and creative thinking isn’t as clear cut as we’d like to believe. Rather, there’s considerable overlap between the two modes of thought. However, while philosophers and psychologists have pondered the mechanisms of logical thinking for centuries, research on creative thinking is still in its infancy.

As yet there’s no agreed-upon definition for creativity, but researchers do at least acknowledge two of its defining features. Namely, the product of creative thinking (1) must be novel and (2) must be useful. If you’re an “art for art’s sake” kind of person, you may object to the requirement that creative products must be useful. However, creativity researchers would insist that works of art are useful, as demonstrated by the fact that the general public spends considerable time and money to experience the arts, whether in galleries or concert halls, or else in their private collections of art, music, and literature.

Green’s research focuses on analogical thinking, which, he maintains, is a process that requires both logical and creative thought processes. In a recent article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, he outlines some recent findings from his lab.

In a typical experiment, participants are asked to solve four-word analogies like the following:

A gun is to a bullet as a bow is to a(n) _____.

Solving a four-word analogy involves two steps. First, you need to discern the relationship between the first and second items. Second, you need to think of what unnamed item is in a similar relationship with the third item.

Analogy solving at this level is generally considered to be a logical reasoning task with no need for creative thinking. Indeed, four-word analogies are often used on standardized tests to measure reasoning abilities. It can also be claimed that four-word analogy tests are just as much about general knowledge as they are about reasoning: Guns shoot bullets. Bows shoot arrows.

However, as Green points out, analogies can also provide a powerful framework for creative thinking. As an example, he asks us to consider Niels Bohr’s solar-system model of the atom. The image of electrons circling a nucleus has become a cultural icon in modern society symbolizing the power of science. The analogy is certainly creative, linking some of the smallest objects in the universe with some of the largest.

The Bohr model of the atom is a clever analogy, and yet at a logical level it fails. Electrons simply do not orbit their nuclei the way that planets revolve around their suns. Nevertheless, the image created by this analogy has helped physicists visualize the structure of the atom and guided them in the construction of testable hypotheses for more than a century.

Likewise, Green uses analogy solving to study creativity because it leads to testable hypotheses. Computational linguists have developed procedures for measuring the “semantic distance” between words. That is to say, we now have a principled way of determining how similar the meanings of any two words are. Thus, Green can determine the difficulty of an analogy by measuring the semantic distances among its concepts.

When Green asked research participants to solve four-word analogies while lying in a functional MRI, he found one brain area in particular that lit up. Furthermore, the more difficult the analogy, the more activity he found in this area. Specifically, this is the left frontopolar cortex, the part of the human brain that fills in our bulging forehead, as compared with the sloping foreheads of our primate cousins.

Green points out that it’s important not to think of the left frontopolar cortex as the analogy-solving area of the brain. The common notion that specific functions are performed in specific brain areas is not supported by neuroscience. Many areas of the brain get involved in any cognitive process, and this is the case with analogy solving as well. Yet we can often identify focal points in processing, and Green speculates that the left frontopolar cortex integrates relational information garnered from other brain areas.

In his famous book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that our reasoning ability is powered by metaphors linking abstract concepts with concrete objects and events. For example, we think about changes in temperature—an abstract idea—in terms of rising and falling, even though there’s no real upward or downward motion.

While metaphors look for similarities between concepts, analogies search for similarities between relationships. Thus, analogies ratchet our thinking up another level, enabling us to engage in thought processes that are simultaneously logical and creative.

References

Green, A. E. (2016). Creativity, within reason: Semantic distance and dynamic state creativity in relational thinking and reasoning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 28-35.

Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).