Creativity, a Brief History

The Reader’s Digest on the Brain

When viewed from above, the brain resembles the halves of a walnut. I will refer to the different halves as the left and the right modes (yes, science people, this is very simplified!).

Each side of the brain controls different functions. The left mode is usually the dominant side due to it controlling speech and language. The right mode has been described as the subordinate or minor hemisphere. Both sides work together.

A Brief History

In the 1940s, a study was done on people with various kinds of brain damage. They were asked to copy a picture of a house.

The results varied depending on which hemisphere remained intact. Patients reliant on the left hemisphere (due to right hemisphere damage) depicted a house that made little sense: front doors floated in space; roofs were upside down. However, they carefully sketched specifics, devoting lots of effort to capture the shape of bricks or wrinkles in window curtains.

By contrast, patients who relied on the right hemisphere (due to left hemisphere damage) tended to focus on the structure’s overall shape. Their pictures lacked details, but they got the essential architecture correct. They focused on the whole, not the parts.

This research suggests that the two hemispheres performed different tasks apart from one another.

A Bad Rap for the Right

It appears the two hemispheres perform somewhat different functions, but later research placed a value on each.

Roger Sperry, Neuroscientist and Nobel Prize winner, summarized the prevailing view in the 1980s of the right hemisphere. He said, “It is mute …word-deaf, and… generally lacking in higher cognitive function. ” Sperry’s research suggested that the right hemisphere was not only expendable in the event of brain injury but also inferior in some way.

Redemption for the Right

In the early 1990s, Mark Beechman, a scientist with the National Institutes of Health, studied patients with right hemisphere damage.

He realized that the world is so complex that the brain has to process it in two different ways, yet at the same time. Our brain needs to see the forest and the trees! The right hemisphere helps us see the forest.

Issues that he documented included patients unable to understand jokes, sarcasm, or metaphors. Some had a tough time using a map or making sense of paintings.

What does it mean when Romeo calls Juliet his sun?

Romeo isn’t saying that Juliet is a massive, flaming ball of hydrogen!!

Understanding a metaphor

Beechman noted that the left hemisphere handles the literal meaning of the words. In contrast, the right hemisphere deals with the connotation of words. I.E., the idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal meaning. When you laugh at the punch line of a joke, you are relying on the right hemisphere. Metaphors are a perfect example.

In Beechman’s view, the two hemispheres work on different tasks yet have equal importance. Further, a right-brained approach in the workplace might be good, even for left-brain dominant fields of employment.

Encouraging Creativity in the workplace

3M has been inventing new products for over 100 years. It is ranked the third most innovative company in the workplace (placing behind Apple and Google).

3M spends 8% of its gross revenue on basic research, making it one of the largest of the Fortune 500’s.

Relaxation, Creativity & Bootlegging

3M was the first company to incorporate the Flexible Attention work policy. Instead of insisting on constant concentration (for 8 hours a day), 3M encourages employees to make time to become active in activities that at first glance may appear nonproductive. While 3M has a high demand for productivity, they encourage employees to take regular breaks.

3M employees are encouraged when struggling with a complex technical issue to take a walk across campus. If a challenge seems impossible, lay down on a couch by a window and daydream.

Another 3M innovation is the “bootlegging hour,” which encourages 15% of the day working on speculative ideas. The only requirement is that it must be shared with colleagues.

“Invention is the act of recombining.” — David Humes, Philosopher, 1711-1776

  • One way to come up with creative insights is to find the remote connection between seemingly random ideas. The history of innovation is full of inventors recomposing and transposing.
  • The Wright brothers took their knowledge of bicycle manufacturing to invent the plane.
  • The inventor of Velcro, George de Mestral, was inspired after noticing burrs on his dogs’ fur, thus creating Velcro.
  • Scotch tape was the inspiration for a 3M scientist who invented touch-screen technology in smartphones.
  • 3M routinely rotates engineers, scientists into different research departments to bring a fresh perspective to the lab. For example, a researcher specializing in inhalers might land in the department developing air conditioners. 3M rotates researchers every 4-6 years.

Relaxation & Creativity

When relaxed, the alpha waves are rippling through our brains; we are most likely to have our attention inwards, letting remote association emulate from the right hemisphere.

Positive moods also help our creativity and often lead to relaxation. We are less focused on a troubling world and can access remote associations.

People with ADHD are often very creative as they can make remote connections with ease.

Another period of insight is in the morning, shortly after waking up. A tired mind is open to all kinds of unconventional ideas.  For some, this happens before falling asleep.

Daydreaming is a potent tool for making remote connections. There are two different types of daydreaming. One is when the person is unaware that they are daydreaming. The second type is where the daydreamer is aware. When aware of daydreaming, the person remains conscious of their insights.

The chart below is from Betty Edwards’s book.* Understanding how the left and right modes function can help you better understand where and how you access your different modes.The Critic

By understanding the need to relax, daydream and investigate the random, you will have more opportunities for inspiration.

When we attempt to force insight, we can prevent it. When the left mode is dominant, you are accessing; step-by-step procedures; seeing the parts, not the whole;  draws conclusions based on reason/facts;  uses analytical and rational processes. And the left mode possesses the critic!

All of us experience the critic. It’s that constant chatter that finds fault. When you are in the self-judging mode, it’s your left hemisphere working overtime! To find creative answers, you need to understand how you access your right mode. I will explore that topic in my next blog. 


* References:

  1. Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer
  2. Drawing From the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

1 thought on “Creativity, a Brief History”

  1. Really enjoyed your excellent overview of the neurobiology of creativity. When the left and right hemispheres are “in synch” – which is what is happening when you are engaged in creating art – you are elevated to a “flow state” . In this state – as one art therapist put it – “It’s that sense of losing yourself, losing all awareness. You’re so in the moment and fully present that you forget all sense of time and space.”

    It doesn’t matter if you are a professional artist or just a person trying to create art, the physiological and psychological benefits of the creative process are the same! Research finds reduced cortisol levels reflecting lower stress and many research articles show increased alpha wave activity during the creative act.

    I also especially liked your comment on “the critic”. When you get yourself into the “flow state” the critic is silenced. That’s something that people like me could surely benefit from!

    Diane, I really like your Blogs and learned much from them, keep them coming!

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