If there is one myth about creativity that I wish would just stop, it is that some people are “right brained” and creative, whereas others are “left brained” and analytical.
This lie has caused millions of people to doubt their own creative ability, or for people to consider themselves more creative than other people they see as more logical.
Yet this idea that creativity is somehow located in the right part of the brain is a long-held myth, based on a story with a fascinating background.
A background which started based on Nobel Prize-winning science, but which became twisted beyond recognition by people who lied because they did not understand what it actually meant.
And it all started by looking at people who had their brains cut in half.
Connecting the two hemispheres of the brain: The Corpus Callosum
The human brain is split into two hemispheres down the middle, resulting in a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere. Interestingly, the left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. Even more complicated is that both your eyes connect to both hemispheres, with the left half of both eyes sending signals to the left side of your brain, and the right half of both eyes sending signals to the right hemisphere. Scientists are debating exactly why this is, although one theory is it allows threats from either side to trigger the muscles on that side of the body faster, to fight or escape.
Connecting the two hemispheres is a bundle of about 200 million nerve fibres called the Corpus Callosum. This allows neural networks between the two hemispheres to communicate with one another, and is one of the building blocks for our amazing ability to coordinate thoughts which underlie creativity.
Modern research has shown that certain mental processes are indeed specialised in one hemisphere or the other. For example language, speech and some major problem solving activities take place primarily in the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere has areas better suited to visual-spatial tasks, facial recognition and attention monitoring. However, the vast majority of mental activity takes place across both hemispheres of the brain.
So where did this idea that the right side of the brain is responsible for creativity come from?
It originally came from studying people where the connection between the two hemispheres was causing issues.
In 1940, William P. Van Wagenen published research from epilepsy sufferers that showed a growing tumour in their corpus callosum resulted in their seizures stopping. As a result, some surgeons began deliberately cutting apart the Corpus Callosum in patients with epilepsy, and found this often resulted in the seizures stopping while the patients could still function remarkably well. One of these surgeons was called Joseph Bogen, who performed a number of these surgeries and had healthy patients who now lived with a brain where the two hemispheres were split.
At the same time in the 1960s, researchers John Sperry and his graduate student Michael Gazzaniga were experimenting on animals where the corpus callosum had been cut, resulting in cats and monkeys with split brains. They wanted to see if animals with a split brain would learn differently when only one hemisphere was used to learn something. Sperry found that such cats that had one eye covered and were taught to associate a specific shape with food, but once the cover was switched to the other eye that cat had forgot what it had learned. Apparently, only one half of their brain had learned something, and once the input was fed to the other hemisphere, it needed to start learning all over again.
Sperry and Gazzaniga wanted to see if the same experiments could teach us about the human brain, and whether there was a difference in the two hemispheres of the human brain. While it would be unethical to cut the Corpus Callosum of healthy patients, it was through a fortunate introduction that they met Joseph Bogen and he introduced them to some of his healthy patients who had undergone the epilepsy surgery. So in the early 1960s, Sperry and Gazzaniga began to experiment on these “Split Brain” patients to find out what they could about how the brain operates. One patient, William Jenkins had previously developed seizures after brain damage from being hit in the head by a German soldier’s rifle in World War 2, and he was Sperry and Gazzaniga’s first research participant to see if the surgery had resulted in any cognitive deterioration.
Their research of 10 participants was published in 1967, and concluded that when the Corpus Callosum was cut, both halves of the brain could essentially work independently of one another, and were not even aware of what the other half was doing. It was as if there were two minds living in the same skull. This research would eventually land the two of them the Nobel Prize in 1981.
In the tests, Sperry and Gazzaniga set up a screen to flash an image or word in either the subject’s left or right peripheral vision, so that it would be processed by either the left or right hemisphere of the brain.
They would then ask the subject to do something based on what they just saw.
For example, they might have a selection of objects on the table in front of the participant, and ask them to reach for the object they were just shown on the screen.
What was amazing is situations where Sperry and Gazzaniga found that one hemisphere could do things which the other hemisphere could not.
For example, when shown an image of an apple to the right side of their peripheral vision, activating the left hemisphere of the split brain, and the participant being asked what they saw, they would respond “I saw an apple”. They could also reach out and grab the apple with their right hand (controlled by the left hemisphere).
However, when they were shown an image of something like a hammer to the left side of their peripheral vision, activating the right hemisphere of their brain, something strange happened. When asked what they saw, they often said “I did not see anything”. But when asked to reach for the object, their left hand could correctly grab it. So the right hemisphere could process what it saw, and act on it, but it could not describe it.
Somehow, the left hemisphere of the brain could describe what it saw as well as act on it. What became clear through further research is that ability to speak and use language is indeed located in the left hemisphere of the brain, in an area called Broca’s Area. So it was not that the right hemisphere could not process the image, instead it did not have the connection to the left hemisphere’s language capability to process or describe what it had seen in English.
What the researchers did however see as a strength of the right hemisphere was in processing visual and spacial information.
When asked with copying an image, split brain patients performed significantly better with their left hand (right hemisphere) than their right hand.
In another experiment, Jenkins was asked to position 4 coloured blocks into a 2×2 grid like the researchers instructed. His left hand was able to do this easily, while his right hand found this almost impossible, often not even managing a 2×2 shape and instead arranging them in a 3×1 shape.
But more surprising was this: As the right hand kept trying to get the blocks to match up to the picture, the more capable left hand would creep over to the right hand to intervene, as if it realized how incompetent the right hand was. This occurred so frequently that Gazzaniga eventually asked Jenkins to sit on his left hand so it wouldn’t butt in.
When Gazzaniga later let Jenkins use both hands to solve the problem, he again saw the two brain hemispheres fight for control. “One hand tried to undo the accomplishments of the other,” he wrote. “The left hand would make a move to get things correct and the right hand would undo the gain. It looked like two separate mental systems were struggling for their view of the world.”
It seems like both hemispheres had a rudimentary consciousness, and when they were split from one another, they found it difficult to act in one body.
The false belief that art and creativity are controlled in the right hemisphere
While the work of Sperry and Gazzaniga taught us a lot about how both hemispheres work and interact (especially when it comes to speech), nowhere did they ever say that one hemisphere was responsible for something as complex as art or creativity. Instead, people outside of the scientific community took the news that language was in the left hemisphere and began trying to interpret this information as meaning that other activities must also have their own dedicated brain region. This was completely wrong, as most activity occurs in both hemispheres. But some people took the idea that the right hemisphere was better at visual information processing, and since painting and art are a visual medium, concluded that this must mean that creativity resides in the right hemisphere of the brain.
That is all that it took for the idea to catch fire. Throughout the 1970s, people started talking about being “right brained” to describe themselves as creative, even though this had no scientific merit. One book which really popularised this myth was the 1979 bestseller “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain“, which taught people how to draw with simple techniques, and which had nothing to do with brain hemispheres apart from the title.
There were also myths that after suffering brain injuries to the left hemisphere, such as after a stroke, some patients would develop artistic talents. However, after all my research, I have not managed to find any evidence for people developing artistic abilities after their brain had been split or injured. Similarily, instances of people gaining creative and artistic abilities after damage to the left hemisphere of the brain seem to be a myth as well, as such damage usually causes artistic ability to worsen.
Recently, as the quality of scientific research into creativity has improved, more and more researchers have shown evidence that creativity in various forms exists throughout the entire brain. Both the default mode network and executive attention network are involved across the whole brain, and the interaction between these and other networks is especially important.
Researchers such as Scott Barry Kaufman have also done a lot to communicate that the myth that creativity is in the right hemisphere is just that: a myth.
After all, think of it this way. Creativity is not just a single thing. It requires both divergent and convergent thinking, which use different brain regions as well. And creativity associated with music, painting, solving a mathematical equation or dance will all use different parts of the brain as well.
And just because you are able to be analytical or logical does not mean you are also not creative or artistic. It is not an either /or situation. You can be both. And you are both.
So if you ever hear someone say “Oh, I’m a creative right brained person”, you can now correct them and say: “No, you are a creative whole brained person”.
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