What’s the truth behind the claim that artists and scientists are “right brained” thinkers? What’s more, does tapping into your right hemisphere make you more creative?
I’m an opera singer as well as a cognitive neuroscientist, and this duality is often surprising to people meeting me for the first time. They wonder how I can switch back and forth between the two callings. Yet for me, it’s no less difficult to go from science to singing as it is to switch between any two dissimilar tasks, like writing and teaching, for example. Sure, it takes me a moment or two to refocus, but for many people the idea that a person can be proficient in both art, reserved for right-brain dominant people, and science, where the left brain steers the ship, seems nearly impossible.
This is a transcript from the video series Brain Myths Exploded: Lessons from Neuroscience. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Yet for centuries, scientists and artists were virtually indistinguishable in many ways, and many of them dabbled in both disciplines. There is overlap in terms of the skills required to succeed in either field: attention to detail, creativity, risk-taking, and dedicated diligence, to name just a few. But in the past century, people have gone so far as to suggest that the two jobs are driven by different hemispheres in the brain: the logical left-sided scientist, and the emotional right-brained artist. Is there any truth to the idea that we have a dominant hemisphere, whether it be the right or the left, and that left-dominant people are less creative than right-dominant ones? Or more logical? What’s more, does tapping into your right hemisphere make you more creative?
The Most Common Brain Myth
One idea that has been overused and misinterpreted by many laypeople is the notion that the left side of your brain is logical and analytical while your right side is creative, and that, instead of working together, these two hemispheres are in competition with one another. The logic then goes that if you can tap into your right brain, releasing it from dominance by the left, you can be more creative, or that you need to shut down your overbearing left hemisphere in order to do something original and artistic.
Where did this idea come from? Is any of it based on scientific evidence? There certainly is evidence that patients with specific lesions to one side of the brain may show a different symptom profile from patients with comparable lesions to the other side. The brain is to some extent modular, in that different brain regions are assigned different roles. But the truth is, of course, much more complex.
The Basis for Brain Studies
To understand what underlies the left-right brain myth—why it’s wrong and how much more interesting the truth is—we need to go back to a time before neuroimaging, with the psychologists who were among the first to suggest the two hemispheres of the brain, left and right, might play different roles. And this trip through time takes us to the 1940s, when two neurosurgeons attempted an experimental procedure to help curb seizures in patients with severe cases of epilepsy.
Seizures are caused by the spread of abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Usually, this activity starts in one part of the brain, and, like unchecked wildfire, it spreads across the brain, following the trajectory of neural pathways. When this electrical activity is severe enough and widespread, people with epilepsy experience dangerous and debilitating seizures.
Now here’s a bit of neuroanatomy for you to consider. Picture the brain as an ice cream cone. The brain stem, where your vital functions like breathing and heart rate are controlled, is the cone. One scoop up is the midbrain, and here already we see the division into two sides of the brain, with many structures coming in pairs—one left, one right. The top scoop is the cerebral cortex, which is also divided into two hemispheres. Now, let’s say that the abnormal electrical activity starts in one part of the brain because a set of cells are misfiring. Then, it begins to spread along the connections and eventually sets the whole brain misfiring. That’s a seizure.
In the 1940s, neurosurgeons reasoned that if they could contain the electrical misfiring to only one side of the brain, the seizures wouldn’t be as severe. But the imaging tools that were available to them at the time were pretty limited. It was hard to figure out exactly where the seizures were starting. So they proposed a surgical procedure that would sever the corpus callosum. This is the information superhighway that connects the two cerebral hemispheres of the brain. By cutting this fiber tract, they believed they could trap the abnormal electrical activity in one hemisphere.
Learn more about why the brain is still very much a work in progress
Trying Another Approach
Unfortunately, these initial surgeries had no positive effect on their patients and the technique was quickly abandoned—until the early ’60s. That’s when other neurosurgeons working with seizure patients realized that the idea of severing the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain was actually sound. The problem with the initial experiments was that the technique itself was flawed. You see, in the first surgeries only the corpus callosum was cut, but there are actually two other routes through which abnormal neuronal activity can transfer from one side of the brain to the other. These are the hippocampal and anterior commissures.
These neurosurgeons performed new surgeries that severed these additional routes along with the corpus callosum. The neurosurgeons called these new operations commissurotomies, and they found that these procedures successfully curbed the spread of seizures in a number of severely epileptic patients. Their success came from being able to fully sever the communication between the two halves of the brain.
Learn more about the biological significance of music
The Father of Cognitive Neuroscience
We don’t do this surgery very often anymore because the drugs available for curbing epilepsy are much better than they were in the ’60s, and less invasive surgical procedures have also been developed. But around the same time, a neuropsychologist named Roger Sperry, together with his student Michael Gazzaniga, began testing these so-called split-brain patients to find out what aspects of the human mind are processed in each hemisphere of the brain. This pioneering work ultimately won Sperry the Nobel Prize in 1981, and Michael Gazzaniga went on to become the father of cognitive neuroscience. But it also seeded the left-logical, right-creative brain myth.
Does Gender Matter?
Studies linking creativity to brain wiring have given us mixed results. Depending on how you measure and define it, some studies show that greater connectivity between the hemispheres enhances creativity, while others show the opposite.
And the effect might even be different for men and women. In one study, men and women were tested for creativity using four divergent thinking tasks. The experimenters then computed a creativity index based on their performance. Male and female subjects didn’t differ on average with respect to this score. But the relationship between connectivity and the creativity score was different for men and women. In the highly creative women, there was less connectivity between different brain regions and more regions were activated by the tasks. The authors interpret this finding as suggesting that women recruit more of the brain when thinking creatively.
Learn more about how we should we be thinking about gender differences in the brain
Males, in contrast, showed more efficient regional activation and tighter connections between the regions involved.
So which one is it: more modularity, or more connectivity? The truth is that we’re not even aware of the vast majority of what our brains are doing, even when we’re considering important decisions or thinking creatively. Our conscious awareness is just the tip of the iceberg. And, as Gazzaniga shows us in later studies, our conscious interpretation of why we do the things we do isn’t even necessarily true.
Common Questions About Creativity and the Right Brain
It is merely a theory that right brained people are more creative. There so far is little to no evidence supporting this idea.
The characteristics of right brain thinking are generally considered to be subjective, intuitional, emotional and creative.