The Real Neuroscience of Creativity

Written by Linda Naiman

How we think when we are being creative and why the left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die

The myth of the logical left hemisphere and the creative right hemisphere has become a powerful and useful metaphor for understanding the human brain. I confess I do like describing the creative brain this way—because it’s a useful framework for learning about the creative process. I avoid saying the right brain is creative, because creativity involves both sides of the brain.

Psychologist Christian Jarrett argues in Psychology Today, “The left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die because it has become a powerful metaphor for different ways of thinking – logical, focused and analytic versus broad-minded and creative. Plus, there is more than a grain of truth to the left-brain right-brain myth.”

A recent meta-analytic study confirms the importance of activation of the right hemisphere in creative tasks. The research, conducted by a team of European scientists in Germany and the Netherlands, examined 52 independent studies with a total of 5601 participants, and found that activation of the right hemisphere was greater than that of the left hemisphere in an assortment of tasks involving creativity. Current analysis found that the right hemisphere was actively involved in completing both verbal and pictorial creativity tasks.

Jarrett cites an example from Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “What made Europe happen and made it so creative, is that Christianity was a right-brain religion … translated into a left-brain language [Greek]. So for many centuries you had this view that science and religion are essentially part of the same thing.” A fascinating perspective.

Creativity does not involve a single brain region or single side of the brain; it involves complex networks in which both hemispheres of the brain communicate with each other.

Scott Barry Kaufman explains the “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity,” in Scientific American:

The entire creative process– from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification– consists of many interacting cognitive processes and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task.

Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain. In recent years, evidence has accumulated suggesting that “cognition results from the dynamic interactions of distributed brain areas operating in large-scale networks.

Kauffman cites a recent large review, in which Rex Jung and colleagues provide a “first approximation” regarding how creative cognition might map on to the human brain.

Their review suggests that when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Attentional Control Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Attentional Flexibility Networks. Indeed, recent research on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation suggests that’s precisely what is happening in the brain while in a flow state. However, sometimes it’s important to bring the Attentional Control Network back online, and critically evaluate and implement your creative ideas.

Linda Naiman is founder of Creativity at Work and co-author of Orchestrating Collaboration at Work.

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