There is a common belief in many management and popular psychology circles that a person’s creative ability is determined by which part of their brain is more active. People often refer to people who work in the creative industries or find it easy to come up with ideas as “Right-brained”, whereas people who are more methodical, logical or process-focused are “Left Brained”. I’m here to show you why these terms should be ignored, and give you more of an insight into how the brain actually comes up with ideas.
First, let’s start with the facts. Yes, the human brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right, connected by nerve bundles called the corpus callosum. It is important to understand though that for most brain functions, both hemispheres have symmetry and behave almost identically. This includes things like muscle and body control, senses and memory. However, there are some higher brain functions (more developed in humans than any other animal) where there are some differences between the hemispheres.
One example are parts only found in the left hemisphere known as the Broca’s and Wernicke’s Areas, which have been shown to be related to speech and language understanding. But it is important to understand the history of neuroscience to see how these themes of left vs right brained people developed. And most of the history is based on injuries to the brain.
Only 30% of a person’s creative ability is based on their genetics
Many early studies of brain injuries, either from trauma or disease killing part of the brain, followed subjects to see what effect this had on their behaviour. Strokes in particular showed how localised damage to the brain affected overall functions, and so scientists began to infer the functions of those parts of the brain. People with damage to the left hemisphere often subsequently had difficulty with speech and language. However, at the time there were many documented instances of those people beginning to draw and paint, something they had not done before. So neuroscientists began to hypothesise that the damage to the left had to have increased activity on the right to compensate, and that the newfound creativity was a result of that part of the brain becoming more active. This is the origin of the theory that logical and analytical tasks are handled by the left brain and creative tasks are handled by the right brain.
Some more recent studies have even claimed that symptoms from damage to parts of the right hemisphere are not nearly as bad as the equivalent spot in the left hemisphere, with speech and mathematical functions not impacted as badly. However, people with right hemisphere damage did appear to struggle with functions which require implicit ideas. They struggled with things like sarcasm, metaphors, or seeing links between disparate concepts. Essentially, mental functions where the brain draws on a variety of previous experiences and knowledge to understand the meaning of something. Other recent neuroscience studies have backed this up by showing that in certain creative tasks, multiple points in the left hemisphere (existing knowledge and neural connections) are activated and then processed in the right hemisphere, to build new neural connections. Creativity requires both hemispheres to work, and in fact some studies are investigating if it is the size of the corpus callosum (the connectivity between the two hemispheres) which is in fact the best indicator of creativity.
The Left Brain vs Right Brain myth: It’s a lie
So what does determine a person’s creativity? It is predominantly the environment they were brought up in. Studies between 117 pairs of identical and paternal twins who underwent creativity and IQ tests indicate that while an IQ can be up to 80% determined by genetics, a person’s creativity is only likely to be 30% determined by genetics. The other 70% is determined by how they were nurtured in their upbringing.
Upbringing is in fact the number 1 factor which influenced people’s view of their ability to generate original thoughts, and it is based on schooling and the work environment. As children move up grades in school, it becomes more important to be able to recite correct answers to tests and be graded on them than it is to develop new ideas. These grades determine whether you are likely to go to university and whether you will have a successful job in the future. In fact, while 90% of 2nd Graders describe themselves as creative, within 3 years in 5th Grade this has dropped to 50%, and by the time children reach high school 90-95% of children do not consider themselves creative anymore. In school, and later in the workplace, “wrong” ideas are punished, and creativity is seen as a luxury allowed after ‘serious’ work has been completed correctly.
This all clearly indicates that if a person is seen as being more creative than someone else, or that someone doesn’t believe themselves to be creative, it is much more likely that this is based on how they were brought up than by how their brain is structured. But it also serves as good news. It means that by helping people shift the perspective and remove blocks they have of their own creativity through structured training, you can significantly enhance their ability to generate new, useful and valuable ideas. The same training over time will also help build new neural pathways throughout both hemispheres of the brain, enabling everyone to be more creative. We should move from classifying people as “left” or “right” brained, into one camp or the other, and instead think about how we cam enhance their innate ability.
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Nick Skillicorn is an Innovation consultant and Creativity coach in London, and author of 30 Days of Creativity Training. Find out what Improvides can do for your organisation.