Right-Brain Creativity


ONE ART class assignment was to draw a scene upside down—another to draw only the negative spaces, for example, of kitchen utensils in a jar. The goal: better engaging the creative, right side of the brain. DC-area resident S.H. finds the assignments very difficult.

“It is a real trick to get rid of the part of your brain that just KNOWS how something looks and switch to seeing how things actually appear.” (S.H. uses the example of mistaken ideas most people have about the face: the eyes are not at the top where most people draw them but closer to the middle, and they are not simple almond shapes with circles in the center.)

People like S.H. believe they struggle with creative activities like art, writing, music and dance, because their left brain— which “just knows” and is thought to be more analytical and fact-based—dominates and suppresses creative input from the right side.

In recent years scientists have questioned generalizations about personalities based on differences in the two brain hemispheres.  “For individual personality traits, such as creativity or a tendency toward the rational rather than the intuitive, there has been little or no evidence supporting a residence in one area of the brain,” according to Harvard rheumatologist Robert Shmerling.

Brain scans found no evidence of “sidedness” in a 2013 study at the University of Utah that included more than 1,000 people between the ages of 7 and 29 and divided areas of the brain into 7,000 regions.  Writes Shmerling, “If you’ve always thought of yourself as a ‘numbers person’ or a creative sort, this research doesn’t change anything. But it’s probably inaccurate to link these traits to one side of your brain.”

“Many neuroscientists consider the concept of purely left-brain vs. right-brain characteristics a myth,” according to MedicineNet. And most research to date shows not only equal use of both sides of the brain but the need for abilities on both sides to work together on all tasks, including creative ones.

On the other hand, a recent brain-imaging study at Drexel University’s Creativity Research Lab assessing hemisphere dominance in creative endeavors found differences.  Of 32 jazz guitarists asked to improvise, for those comparatively inexperienced at improvisation, “creativity is, in fact, driven primarily by the right hemisphere,” according to the National Science Foundation report.

On the other hand, those musicians who were experienced at improvisations relied primarily on their left hemispheres.  “If creativity is defined in terms of the quality of a product, such as a song, invention, poem or painting, then the left hemisphere plays a key role,” said Drexel’s John Kounios.

According to another recent report, creativity relies on the ability to combine remote concepts…which would depend on associative processing in the right hemisphere, which is modulated by dopamine. Because higher dopamine levels constrain associations, lower levels in the right hemisphere allow for greater creativity on a range of tasks.

Finally, research on pigeons found one cause of “functional brain asymmetries” is timing: if both brain hemispheres are competing for control, the left is able to delay the activity or neurons in the right hemisphere—although the neurons in both hemispheres are also capable of synchronizing their activity.

And domination by one hemisphere can affect mental health.  Hyperactivity in the right hemisphere, for example, plays a role in depression —when a less active left hemisphere is unable to restrain the processing of negative emotions, pessimistic thoughts and unconstructive thinking styles associated with the right.

Also, right-hemisphere lesions can be the cause of “delusional misidentification syndromes,” such as Capgras syndrome, in which sufferers view familiar people including family members as imposters.

Investigation into the different functions of each hemisphere began in the 1940s with surgery that severed the corpus callosum—the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the two sides of the brain—for patients with severe epilepsy. Since then, endless lists have divided tasks between the two hemispheres: for the left hemisphere, attention to details, analytical/logical thinking and mathematical ability; and for the right, understanding verbal ambiguity and emotional and implied meanings.  In learning, left brainers are thought to be more visual and right brainers more auditory.

British psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist— favorite author of Fawlty Towers actor John Cleese—questions what he calls the culture’s “left hemisphere chauvinism…that Left is the dominant, practical partner while the Right more or less sits around writing poetry.” In fact, McGilchrist believes, it is “Right that is responsible for surveying the whole scene and channeling incoming data, so it is more directly in touch with the world.”

Since the mid-1970s, books about both drawing and writing “on the right side of the brain” extend the notion that getting in touch with your right brain bolsters creativity. Gabriele Rico’s Writing the Natural Way suggests ways to “orchestrate hemispheric cooperation”—using “callosal inhibition,” blocking the flow of signals from left to right, or otherwise suppressing the left hemisphere.

Among famous examples cited are Einstein’s “thought experiments”—imagining what a light wave would look like if he were an observer riding along with it; or what it would feel like to be a man in a falling elevator, what would happen to his keys, etc. Einstein said that “only when these images became so clear they were voluntarily reproducible could he laboriously transform them into communicable language.”

Whatever is going on at the neurological level, many people attest to the success of such efforts. For writing, “clustering” exercises, also called “brain storming,” involve making charts that start with a single word surrounded by empty circles to be filled in with more single words, for example, “airplane” leads to “freedom” and “lonely”; “bend” leads to “dishonesty” and “old.”

Clustering may override left-hemisphere contributions such as syntax and at the same time create its own, “similar to watching clouds:” suddenly you see a horse or a duck, “it is a moment of pattern recognition,” accompanied by an emotional surge, the “aha!”

“People often lack any voice at all in their writing because they stop so often in the act of writing a sentence and worry and change their minds about which words to use…have none of the natural breath in writing that they have in speaking” —from writer Peter Elbow, included in Rico’s book.

Encouraging greater right-hemisphere contribution may be what some people consider listening to the subconscious —by efforts to put the conscious brain on hold. One suggestion is to write in your head while doing something automatic, like swimming or driving—even pretending to drive by holding an imaginary steering wheel, in Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, by Henriette Klauser.

The ultimate goal, Klauser points out, is “what EEGs show takes place in any highly creative thinking… ideas to crackle across those wires [between the two hemispheres] as idea and its implementation enhance and encourage each other.”

For drawing, S.H. wrote, “The upside-down exercise really works well. So does drawing negative space and looking at relationships.” But she compares these to her experiences with dance: “I don’t need to analyze the steps or count the beat—I can see what the teacher is doing and just copy it without any analysis – it’s very cool! I can’t necessarily duplicate it for someone else later without shifting back to left brain. In dance, I can really feel a right brain experience, but not yet with drawing— sadly!”

—Mary Carpenter

Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical issues in health and medicine.


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