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Monday’s medical myth: the right side of your brain controls creativity

Are you suffering a creativity problem? Well, pop psychology claims your “right brain” holds the key. Whether you want to drop a few kilos, improve your profits, spice up your sex life, or take over the…

Creativity requires communication between both hemispheres of your brain. Flickr/lacta

Are you suffering a creativity problem? Well, pop psychology claims your “right brain” holds the key.

Whether you want to drop a few kilos, improve your profits, spice up your sex life, or take over the world, we’re encouraged to believe a right-brain approach will solve our problems.

Just look at some of these self-help titles (I wish I were making them up):

The right brain/creativity link first captured the public imagination in 1979 when Betty Edwards published the worldwide bestseller Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

Edwards argued that by switching from the traditional left-brain mode (logical, verbal, symbolic) to a right-brain mode (creative, non-verbal, non-symbolic), even those who “can’t draw” will uncover their inner artist.

Amie Fedora

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has become the world’s most widely-used drawing guide, selling millions of copies, because the exercises Edwards describes are genuinely effective. And for the aspiring artist, if the exercises work it really doesn’t matter how they work.

But from a scientific perspective, it’s a bit of a problem that there’s no evidence the exercises in Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain selectively involve the right side of the brain.

The idea that the right brain houses the key to creative thinking was born in the 1960s, but the two sides of the brain have been viewed as a Jekyll and Hyde pair for well over a century.

The left brain is regarded as the intelligent, rational, logical half, contrasting with the emotional, irrational, and creative right brain (in the 19th century, the right brain was thought to be the seat of madness, truly the Mr Hyde of the hemispheres!).

The creative process is rarely thought of as rational. The ancient Greeks thought that creativity resulted from the actions of the muses, and so waited for inspiration to strike.

Improving communication between the two sides of your brain will increase creativity. Open Sourceway

Philosophers from Plato to Popper similarly believed creativity was mystical and therefore irrational. As the right brain was viewed as the “irrational” hemisphere, it’s little wonder it was proposed to control creativity too.

There is no question that the right brain is involved in creative thinking. But the idea that creativity is solely a function of one side of the brain is far too simplistic.

Any creative act, from solving a puzzle to painting a masterpiece, requires the input and integration of information from both sides of your brain. And research is increasingly demonstrating that creativity really is a whole-brain process.

If you measure the electrical activity generated by the brain during creative tasks, there is clear evidence of interaction between distant regions in both the left and right brain.

So as you might expect, if you’re highly creative you have more interaction between the left and right brain than less creative folks. Engaging both sides of the brain allows you to generate more creative solutions.

Musicians need efficient interaction between the left and right brain. Flickr/cseeman

The good news is that even if you don’t consider yourself particularly creative, training can increase your creativity by improving communication between the two sides of your brain.

Thus professional musicians have more efficient interaction between the left and right brain than people employed in less creative pursuits, and people with design training show greater interaction than novices. By increasing interaction between the two sides of the brain, you increase creativity.

Creativity is not just a right brain process. Your right brain is vital to creativity, but so is the left: it is the interaction between the two sides of the brain, and the integration of different concepts and disparate processes, that fosters creative thinking.

When it comes to creativity, two hemispheres really are better than one.