There is no right brain, left brain. While it has been popular to consider ourselves as being controlled by one or the other, there is no scientific basis for this. We use the whole brain to think.
We are all whole-brain creators. So what are the distinctions between the two hemispheres joined together by the corpus callosum?
The main difference, as described by Robert Ornstein, is that ‘the right brain hemisphere provides the context. The left hemisphere keeps tracks of the details’.
Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, suggests the function of the corpus callosum is to keep the two hemispheres apart, to allow each side of the brain to incubate those ideas necessary for the components of divergent thought required for creativity.
He quotes Einstein that ‘the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant’ while arguing that we have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.
What McGilchrist is implying here is that we have progressively early adopted using our more logical and analytical thinking directed from the left hemisphere but diminished our capacity for creative thought.
Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, takes this one step further to argue that ‘our focus on facts, programming and numbers has led to a devaluing of skills that are often the strengths of the emotionally sensitive, making meaning, consoling, caretaking, awareness of undercurrent in interpersonal interactions and creativity’.
While he is on the right track, we don’t want to be just right brainers either. What’s needed is the appropriate integration of reason and imagination so they work together seamlessly.
As Szabolcs Keri reminds us, ‘creativity is the connectivity of large-scale brain networks. How brain areas talk to each other is critical when it comes to originality, fluency and flexibility’. Our right hemisphere sustains a broad awareness of our environment, while the left is more precise with a sharper focus and greater attention to detail.
The problem is that our education system still favours and rewards academic achievement based on measurable applications of logic, memory and reason above creativity. One outspoken critic of the education system, Sir Ken Robinson, believes our innate sense of creativity is knocked out of us by the school curriculum. He sees education as a major global challenge to adequately prepare our future thinkers.
It should seem obvious that our ability to think outside the square and come up with new ideas is going to matter far more than merely having access to data. Many believe the information superhighway could still do with a few more underpasses, several more lanes and at least three new roundabouts.
Another partial truth about creativity owes to the stereotype of the neurotic artiste. The brain science does suggest there is a link between creativity and mental health. Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have shown how the dopamine system (the brain’s reward system) in highly creative people such as writers, artists and musicians is very similar to that seen in people with schizophrenia. Both have fewer dopamine receptors in the area of the brain called the thalamus, which acts as a kind of relay centre filtering information before it reaches our conscious awareness.
It’s thought that having fewer of these receptors could explain why the mechanism in those who are highly creative can identify many more uncommon associations when problem solving — and why those with mental illness sometimes make bizarre associations. It comes down to the level of filtering being applied.
As Dr Ullen, leader of the study, said ‘Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box’.
Yet it’s important to note that being creative does not imply you are at risk of mental illness. You do not have to be mentally ill to be creative, and you do not have to be creative to develop mental illness.
Indeed the act of creativity is generally associated with feelings of happiness, personal growth and wellbeing. Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of the Imagination Institute, reporting on the findings of another Swedish study, notes that the siblings of people with autism, and first-degree relatives of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anorexia, appear to be overrepresented in creative professions.
He concludes that ‘mental illness is conducive to creativity indirectly by enabling the relatives of those afflicted [with it] to open the mental flood gates, but maintain the protective factors necessary to steer the chaotic, potentially creative storm’.
This is an edited extract from Future Brain by Dr Jenny Brockis, Wiley, $24.95