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Brain Myths Series: #2 Creative v Analytical Brains

Creative v Analytical Brains

If you are like me and millions of others, you may have taken a quiz or completed a visual challenge to test the dominance of your brain hemispheres.  Were you left or right brain dominant?  Or perhaps you were one of those exceptional people who could demonstrate equal hemispheric abilities?  Did the test ‘explain’ why you are great at maths and can’t draw to save yourself, or, why your musically gifted child doesn’t seem to use lists to keep track of homework?

It turns out - as entertaining as this was - it was all a waste of time as the whole notion is, in fact, a myth!  A popular, but mistaken theory that has left a significant chunk of the population believing that there are, essentially, two types of brains (left or right hemisphere dominant) and that this ‘fact’ scientifically determines why some of us apparently tend to be more creative in our thinking and others think in a logical or analytical way.

Where did the theory come from?

The OECD’s Centre for Educational Innovation and Research  produced a publication dispelling neuro-myths (1999-2002).  This work suggested that people have been interested in the two brain hemispheres and classifying individuals according to cognitive skills throughout history. The fascination with the idea that the right side of the brain holds the key to imagination, ingenuity and innovation has roots reaching back to the mid- late 1800s and beyond, when brain research demonstrated the localisation of particular skills in either the left or right sides of the brain giving rise to the idea that the left brain is the verbal side, and the right brain non-verbal.  This theory has been further propagated through popular literature and media since the 1960s.   

How does the brain function during a creative thinking process?   

The right hemisphere of the brain is indeed involved in the creative process.  However, scientific research indicates that while there are some functional differences between the right and left sides of the brain, we have evidence from medical imaging that the two hemispheres of the brain are interactive – they work together for all cognitive tasks.  In an article for The Conversation, Dr Lindell refers to research that shows that creativity is a whole brain process, and in fact, individuals with greater left and right brain connections show superior creative ability. 

Why are some people more creative than others?

Dr Roger Beaty (2018) and colleagues undertook research to learn why some people may be more creative than others.  In a recent article, he outlines the findings and suggests that creativity may be viewed as a trait, much like intelligence, that everyone possesses in differing ways.  The study found that more highly creative individuals had strong connections between particular brain networks: ‘default’ (spontaneity/ daydreaming), ‘executive’ (evaluation) and ‘salience’ (switching between generating ideas and assessing ideas).    The results of the study were consistent with brain imaging research done with professional artists and musicians, highlighting strong connectivity in these brain regions.   

Dr Beaty suggests further scientific research is required to determine if we can in fact, enhance general creative thinking.  Are the networks are more or less fixed, or can connectivity be increased with activities, such as focussed practice?

Why does the creative versus analytical brain myth persist?

This myth may never die, says Dr Christian Jarrett of Psychology Today.  He suggests that not only has the idea developed into a powerful metaphor, but untapped creative potential is a seductive notion that has historically been exploited by self-help gurus through any number of books and programs.   Jarret says that even today, creators of video games and apps are capitalising on the popular misconception, targeting those interested in self- improvement and learning with claims of boosting creativity through right brain activities. This thought is echoed by Dr Lindell who suggests that marketers eagerly tap into the right brain/ creativity approach as a solution for any issue at all, from weight loss to world domination.

Indeed the creative/ logical brain theory may be seen as appealing, as it may explain apparent differences in abilities between ourselves, our children or students.  It may have been used as a tool to guide subject or career choices and a possible pathway to connect to that untapped potential.   But with better promotion of neuroscience and brain facts in schools for students, educators and parents, hopefully the left brain/right brain fallacy will be soon be widely known as a myth of the past!

Catherine Brandon, Director of Genazzano Institute / Psychologist  

Beaty, R, (2018) The Conversation. study reveals why some people are more creative than others
Jarret, C. (2012) Psychology Today.
Lindell, A. (2011) Laterality. Lateral thinkers are not so laterally minded: hemispheric asymmetry, interaction, and creativity.
Lindell, A. (2011) The Conversation. Monday’s medical myth: the right side of your brain controls creativity.
OECD, 2002. Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science,Chapter 4.6 pp.69-77.