Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The “Right Brain” Is Not the Only Source of Creativity

11 brain areas in four hemispheres create a “mental workspace” of imagination.

There is an ongoing debate about the differences between the function of the "left brain" and "right brain." For decades, many scientists and the general public have believed the right brain is the seat of creative thinking and the left brain is the home of logical thinking. Researchers from Dartmouth College have just debunked the myth that the right brain alone is the origin of creativity and imagination.

Where do new ideas come from? Researchers at Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences were curious to discover “what makes humans able to create art, invent tools, think scientifically and perform other incredibly diverse behaviors?” They found that imagination stems from a widespread network of brain areas that collectively manipulate ideas, images and symbols. This "mental workspace" had been theorized before, but this study provides new empirical evidence.

The findings were published on September 16, 2013 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study is titled "Network Structure and Dynamics of the Mental Workspace."

Human imagination does not come only from the right hemisphere of the cerebrum. Creativity and imagination require a widespread neural network in the brain. This mental workspace involves all four hemispheres of both the cerebrum and cerebellum.

Working with amazing symmetry, 11 different brain areas within the four hemispheres are able to consciously manipulate images, deconstruct symbols, come up with new ideas and theories and give humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems.

Can you imagine a bumblebee with the head of a bull?

Honing in on the neural networks of the "mental workspace" used for creativity has been difficult because current brain imaging requires isolation within a narrow and claustrophobic fMRI tube. The Dartmouth researchers admit that their imagination experiment was somewhat unrealistic compared with creative tasks in everyday life. "It would be great if we could stick someone in an MRI machine and say 'create some art,'" said Alex Schlegel. He added, "But for a scientific study, the task must be more uniform.” In this study, the researchers focused on visual forms of imagination.

Dartmouth researchers addressed this dilemma issue by asking: How does the brain allow us to manipulate mental imagery? And then they asked participants to do things like imagining a bumblebee with the head of a bull. This would seem like an easy task for most of us, but it actually requires the brain to construct a totally new image and then make it appear in our mind's eye. Artists are able to transfer these images to a canvas and writers can use words to conjure up mental images in our minds.

The conscious manipulation of mental representations is central to many creative and uniquely human abilities. How does the human brain mediate such flexible mental operations? It turns out, a widespread neural network performs complex mental manipulations on the contents of visual imagery.

"For example, if a person is asked to imagine a banana spinning around quickly and getting bigger or smaller, he can do so effortlessly," said Alex Schlegel. "When you start to look at more complex cognitive process like imagination or creative thinking, it's not just isolated [brain] areas that are responsible, but communication of the entire brain that's required," Schlegel said.

In the study, 15 participants were asked to imagine specific abstract visual shapes and then to mentally combine them into new more complex figures or to mentally dismantle them into their separate parts. Researchers measured the participants' brain activity with functional MRI and found a cortical and subcortical network over a large part of the brain was responsible for their imagery manipulations.

The network closely resembles the "mental workspace" that scholars have theorized might be responsible for much of human conscious experience and for the flexible cognitive abilities that humans have evolved over millennia.

Conclusion: All Four Brain Hemispheres Work Together for Creativity

Alex Schlegel concludes, "Our findings move us closer to understanding how the organization of our brains sets us apart from other species and provides such a rich internal playground for us to think freely and creatively. Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines.”

Schlegel admits, "We still don’t know how the human brain mediates complex and creative behaviors such as artistic, scientific, and mathematical thought. But understanding imagination reveals what makes humans unique among animals." Schlegel believes these findings could ultimately help improve artificial intelligence. Computers are good at a lot of things, but are less adept at seeing patterns or thinking creatively. "The more we understand how the human brain does this, the better we can design machines," he concludes.

If you’d like to read more about practical ways you can stimulate all four brain hemispheres and become more creative please check out my Psychology Today blogs “The Neuroscience of Imagination,” “The Neuroscience of Madonna’s Enduring Success” and “Imagination Can Change Perceptions of Reality."

Huge thanks to Trevor Mikula for permission to use your paintings, “You Put Me in the Clouds Baby” and “Here Fishy Fishy” in this entry.