Creativity and the brain

The right side of the brain plays a key role in creativity, according to neuroscientists. An explanation. 

Good ideas often seem to come out of nowhere, when we are least expecting them. What is going on in our brain? Does the brain have a creativity zone? It turns out that neuroscientists still know very little about this. Despite a great deal of research, creativity largely remains a mystery. Nevertheless, several studies have already provided some clues, particularly about the fundamental role of the right side of the brain in the creative process.

Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University in the U.S., realized, when examining patients with cerebral lesions on the right side of their brains, that they had lost the ability to understand jokes, metaphors and irony. Typically, these people are no longer able to understand the meaning of a phrase like “Juliette is my sun”, although they perfectly understand the words “Juliette” and “sun” taken individually. This observation led Mark Beeman to make the following suggestion: while the left side of the brain analyzes the separate elements of a problem and focuses on the details, the right side of the brain connects supposedly unrelated items of information in order to generate the big picture.

Boosting creativity by closing your right eye

This kind of connection plays a central role in creativity. In 1993, Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, gave students a problem requiring abstract association of supposedly unrelated information. The participants were then given advice to make the task easier. But they were not all given this advice in the same way. Some were required to read this advice with their left eye, which is connected anatomically to the right side of the brain, others with their right eye, which is connected to the left side of the brain.

The results are astonishing: those students who used their left eye produced a creative performance which was markedly better than the others. According to Jonathan Schooler, the right side of their brain was able to connect information that was independent of the problem to reach a solution in a creative way. 

Frustration: an important step in the creative process

Mark Beeman developed a cerebral imaging experiment to observe directly the changes in neuronal activity in individuals trying to solve a creative problem – from becoming aware of the problem to the moment of discovering the solution, Archimedes’ famous Eureka moment. According to the researcher, the brain seems to go through two, or even three, distinct phases. First, activity is focused in the left side of the brain, which specifically analyzes all elements of the problem and explores the most obvious possibilities.

Failing to find a response despite their efforts, the subjects then go through a phase of frustration, almost despair. This stage proves crucial in the creative process, because it allows for a change of strategy. It is actually at this point that the elements of information migrate to the right side of the brain, where they are connected. The solution then comes through what seems to be a genuine mini explosion of neuronal activity in a region called the superior temporal gyrus.

Source: Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


Last modification 02.08.2018

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