‘Creative right brain’ myth debunked

March 7, 2012 by Amara D. Angelica

(Credit: stock image)

Yet another brain myth bites the dust, joining “we only use 10 percent of our brain,” and other pseudoscience nonsense that tries to cram people in nice neat boxes.

The left hemisphere of your brain, thought to be the logic and math portion, actually plays a critical role in creative thinking, University of Southern California (USC) researchers have found, at least for visual creative tasks (and musical, as previously found).

“We need both hemispheres for creative processing,” said.Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor of neuroscience.

The research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of architecture students, who tend to be visually creative.

While being scanned, the subjects were shown three shapes: a circle, a C and an 8. They then were asked to visualize images that could be made by rearranging those shapes — for example, a face (with the 8 on its side to become the eyes, the C on its side to become the smiling mouth and the circle in the center as the nose).

The students also were asked to simply try to piece three geometric shapes together with their minds and see if they formed a square or a rectangle — a task that requires similar spatial processing but not necessarily creativity.

Even though it mainly was handled by the right hemisphere, the creative task actually lit up the left hemisphere more than the non-creative task. The results indicated that the left brain potentially is a crucial supporter of creativity in the brain.

Aziz-Zadeh said she plans to explore more of how different types of creativity (painting, acting, singing) are created by the brain, what they have in common, and what makes them different.

Deconstructing the right-brain myth

The “creative right brain” myth apparently originated from misinterpretations of Roger Sperry’s split-brain experiments on epileptics in the 60s, which earned him a Nobel Prize in 1981. It  has already been debunked.

See, for example, University of Washington neurobiologist Dr. William H. Calvin’s excellent 1983 book, Throwing Madonna:Essays on the Brain (the text of chapter 10, “Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology?” is accessible here).

Despite that, there are still lots of suppliers of education and training materials based on this myth, and lots of bureaucratic teachers, self-help writers, financial charlatans, polarizing politicians, and quick-buck counselors eager to put people into programmed slots where they can be easily manipulated and controlled.

Ref.: Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, Sook-Lei Liew, and Francesco Dandekar, Exploring the Neural Correlates of Visual Creativity, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012; [DOI: 10.1093/scan/nss021]