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Myths of Right-Brained Creativity

Myths of hemispheric-centered creativity do more harm than good.

"I'm not creative. I'm very left-brained." "My teachers killed my creativity." "I'm just not into being all different and original and weird."

As a creativity consultant, I often hear such comments. What underlie each of them are myths about creativity, myths perpetuated often by other consultants and by incomplete conclusions derived from the science of creativity. Let me be audacious enough to try to dispel one of the biggest such myths: the right-brain creativity myth.

A recent study showed that a function of visual thinking is not solely a function of the right hemisphere. The Health Editor at The Columbia Chronicle recently asked me if the study's findings surprised me. They didn't.

The puzzle required that architecture students visualize certain existing geometric shapes and if when assembled formed either a square or a rectangle. This activity requires visual and spatial reasoning (so we'd expect the right hemisphere to light up), but it also requires drawing upon previous knowledge (what is a square or rectangle) and making discernments. The mind puzzle did not require complete novelty or spontaneous insight.

As a culture, we're still re-covering from the misnomer that creativity is a right-brained activity. I think this assumption stems in part from an over-simplification of especially Roger Sperry's work in the 1960s on the split-brain hypothesis. Some of that research demonstrated that in general ways activities that require more holistic perception (the gestalt), spatial reasoning, and appreciation of beauty stimulate the right hemisphere and that activities which require more analytical thinking—including language—stimulate the left. This research became popular and grossly over-simplified in the 1990s especially in education circles, business circles, and art workshops.

We now know that creativity as well as—on the flip side—rational decisions are more whole-brained activities than some of us would like to imagine. For instance, playing music involves making the repetitive drills and memorizing certain hand movements (left-brained) as well as improvising and connecting emotionally to the music (somewhat right-brained).

The reverse is also true. If we follow that certain activities are strictly right-brained or left-brained, we'd assume that someone with no right-hemispheric stimulation would be highly rational. That's not the case. Our capacity to reason well seems to rely a good deal upon being able to access our emotions.

Reason relies on emotion. What we assume are conscious logical decisions—buying a car, choosing a house, electing a candidate—actually are influenced by considerable unconscious and highly emotional impulses that we then rationalize. We do cost-analysis of automobiles (mostly left-brain and prefrontal cortex), but we also have strong emotional responses to cars (color, feel). Designers and marketers know this all too well. Recent studies have shown that people without access to their emotions because of brain damage are highly dysfunctional. They will spend hours deliberating on one minute problem and not get anywhere.

Emotions are not, though, a strictly right-hemispheric function. Some neuroscientists such as Joseph Ledoux are even challenging the idea of "the emotional brain" or "the limbic system."

Pure logical problems might not seem to require much novelty. But if you were to monitor people's brains while they tried to figure out a syllogism, at the moment of insight, the moment they figure out the solution, I could almost guarantee that a part of the right brain called the right anterior temporal lobe would light up.

We know similarly that people who try to hyper-focus in order to solve a problem usually confound themselves. If you want to solve a problem, don't sit down to try to figure it out. Prime your mind with the necessary knowledge. Let your mind absorb it. Then, step away and diverge. Take a walk outdoors. Move your body. Take a hot bath. Draw and doodle. Stop thinking so hard. And watch the margins of your mind play.

This last part—the ability to watch your mind at work and play—is probably a function neither of left or right hemispheres, per se, but of the medial prefrontal cortex. This area is stimulated in people who are aware of their awareness. And it's instrumental in thriving as a creative problem-solver or as a creative in any field.

Another false assumption I think we suffer from culturally is the idea that creativity equals novel insight. When we have those aha! moments, a part of the right hemisphere is in fact stimulated. But to thrive creatively involves so much more than insight and novelty.

Creativity is in part applying imagination. Creativity entails either making novel contributions within a field, re-combining existing ideas in a fresh and useful way, or/and it is solving problems in a novel but useful way.

To do so, a person must have discernment, judgment, a clear knowledge of the material and craft—much left-brained. A writer who aspires to excel as a memoirist and to have her work recognized and appreciated, for instance, actually must learn a great deal about her craft and about how to design engaging and near-magical reading experiences.

Such study is the left-brained behind-the-scenes work of a lot of creative output that many people popularly don't like to think about. They don't like to associate creativity with study, discipline, and discernment. They like to associate creativity with romance and spontaneity and brilliant ideas. That's just not the whole story of what it takes to thrive creatively. All skill, no whim, and what's created might be flat and derivative. All whim, no skill, and what's made might be enjoyable only for the creator.

Not incidentally, what happens with many adults is that once they learn facets of their respective craft, the joy of their medium increases because they "know what they're doing."

People who thrive as creative problem-solvers probably have developed a series of habits that let their brains' neighborhoods talk more freely to each other. And the human brains' neighborhoods and designated regions, by the way, are constantly changing as neuroscientists try to map them out. I imagine a group of legislators re-mapping political districts.

We have to be careful not to over-simplify a study's findings. I'm sure there's a good neuro-scientific explanation for why we over-simplify.

What do you think? Am I off-base here? Are there other myths of creativity you'd like to pose or see explored here? I'd love to hear from you consultants, scholars, practitioners, and curious everyday creatives.

See you in the woods,

Jeffrey Davis is a creativity consultant and author of The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies & Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing (Monkfish Publishing 2008; Penguin Putnam 2004). He mentors creatives, professionals, teams, and solo-preneurs to track wonder and to delight by design.