Putting Your Best Brain Forward—Linking Brain Areas to Creativity

Use Your Brain Hemispheres for Maximum Efficiency

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

You may have heard of the differences between our left brain and right brain when it comes to creativity and logic. As Dr. Richard Restak explains, though, it’s not so clear-cut. He also gives a fun brain exercise for sharpening your creativity.

graphic representation of brain with left and right hemispheres active
Specific areas within the left and right hemispheres of the brain function during creativity. Image by: adike/Shutterstock

Brain Areas and Creativity

Although everyone agrees on the value of creativity, until recently, we knew little about the brain processes underlying it. Different brain areas are specialized for different functions when it comes to creativity. 

“Listening to my voice, for instance involves the temporal lobes; watching me, the occipital lobes; thinking about lecture points, you use your frontal lobes; and your emotional response to my words involve the right hemisphere and the limbic system,” Dr. Restak said.

The two brain hemispheres are specialized. The left hemisphere is more important for verbal and symbolic processing. It is the main language center for reading, writing, speaking, and calculation. It also analyzes the right visual field and controls the right hand.

The right hemisphere is important for processing visual-spatial information, such as reading a map or driving in unfamiliar surroundings. It’s also involved with emotional perception and expression. It gives the emotional coloring of language—for example, sarcasm. It also analyzes the left visual field and helps control the left hand.

Are the Two Hemispheres Really So Different?

The independent operation of the hemispheres was first demonstrated years ago in patients whose corpus callosum had been severed as a treatment for epilepsy. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres. 

Each of us has a unique cognitive style that blends the functions of both the left and the right hemisphere. However, the difference in right and left hemispheric styles has been exaggerated in normal people.

The brain uses the most appropriate hemisphere for a specific task, with assistance from the other hemisphere. For instance, the right hemisphere is not the language hemisphere, but it can do a little bit of reading. 

Here is an important principle: You can increase efficiency by activating different rather than similar brain areas. For example, when you’re on the telephone and someone brings you a note, it’s a lot easier than when they just come up to you and talk to you. This avoids the interference effect, where the hemisphere functions interfere with each other if activated together.

It’s best, therefore, to arrange things so that you aren’t calling on the same brain areas at the same time lest they interfere with each other’s performance. For example, when driving, don’t try to read road signs while engaging in a spirited conversation. Instead, use a GPS which would not interfere as much because you’re simply looking at it. 

A Fun Brain Exercise

Now that you understand brain geography, you can use that knowledge to enhance your creativity and even have some fun in the process. Here’s your first exercise: Add one mark or symbol to the Roman numeral IX and change it to the number 6. 

Since IX is a Roman numeral, you may be predisposed to think in Roman numerals. Instead, think in terms of other symbols, letters, or numbers.

What symbol, letter, or number would change the Roman numeral IX to the number 6? It’d be the letter “S,” of course. This produces the word “SIX.” 

The riddle was solved either by an immediate grasp of the situation—you saw it right away, and you had the correct resolution—or you reasoned your way around it. Or you examined your assumptions and got rid of the assumption that it had to be a Roman numeral.

Creativity is often marked by sudden insights—the “ah” experience, which is a nearly instantaneous resolution of insight that is associated with a sudden burst of activity in the right anterior temporal area, providing proof that creativity is brain-related. 

We base creativity on three thinking patterns. The first is verbal language, in which unwarranted assumptions can trip us up—as happened with the IX-six riddle. The second is music and math. 

This, of course, requires the understanding of fundamentals about math and music. It’s dependent on specialized training. 

The third thinking pattern is visual thinking. This is often the key to creative thinking by envisioning and manipulating information.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 321 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.