Debunking the left/right brain myth

by | Nov 27, 2017

I’ve always been fascinated by what’s playing out on the hills and valleys of our 3lbs of grey matter whilst we’re generating creative ideas.

People often ask what the secret is to getting into ‘the creative zone?’

The answer seems to be that there is not one creative zone, rather a range of ways of thinking and we can all try to be more creative by exploring every crevice of our brain and switching between different, often contradictory, modes of thought.

The left brain / right brain theory is well-established shorthand for the idea that left-brain thinkers are rational, logical and analytical compared with creative, emotional, spontaneous and intuitive right-brained thinkers. But the generalization that the two brain hemispheres work in isolation has been challenged in recent years and with the advent of live fMRI scanning neuroscientists are beginning to be able to see what’s going on in real time. We can begin to use what they’ve discovered to put strategies in place to recognise and harness different brain states to help our creative efforts.

To help me understand more on this subject I teamed up with neuroscientist Ben Martynoga for my book to learn more about how different brain states affect our creative thinking.

We reviewed 100’s of studies into creativity from neuroscience and psychology and identified different ‘creative elements’ as a way to think about our mental toolkit. Here’s a whistle-stop tour of what we discovered about how our brains work in relation to creativity.

The first element is the unconscious mind (Um) the intuitive, unconscious and fast mode of thinking, rather than systematic, logical evidence-based thinking, which is referred to in Daniel Kahneman’s masterly Thinking Fast and Slow as system 1 and system 2 thinking.

When it comes to creativity we’re often jumping between these two systems of thought.

System 1 is the domain of the unconscious mind. It’s where our minds wander when we’re relaxed. It’s where we forge most associations and it’s where emotions come from.

Our logical and analytical faculties belong to system 2. When we’re being mindful, we’re exercising this system and it’s system 2 that keeps us on target.

Marytnogre suggests that neither dominates when it comes to innovation.

“In fact, we can view the process like a kind of mental ping-pong, as creativity seems to happen when the two systems bat ideas back and forth.”

When an insight emerges with a sudden “aha!” it’s system 2 that sees it and can choose to run with it. But it was system 1 that hatched it, brewed it and nurtured it.

The creative element of emotion relates to the fact that whilst we may think we’re being rational, our first reaction is always emotional. This is key to a better understanding of how we evaluate and consider creative ideas as we explored in this article earlier this year. When generating ideas don’t worry about having good ideas, just have lots of ideas and evaluate them later. This is the work of the prolific mind.

 The improvising mind calls for you to put your inner critic on ice and get into creative flow.

U.S. researchers teamed up with twelve professional rappers and using a brain scanner asked them to improvise to an 8-bar beat. As the lyrics started to flow, the part of the brain that drives analytical thought and self-control switched off. The rappers had taught themselves to silence their inner critic and give free reign to their stream of consciousness.

Leave the judging for your analytical mind – a conscious process that works with your logic to plan, evaluate and plot. Try to switch off that judging voice in your head when you’re generating ideas – by yourself or with others.

When we’re awake but relaxed, scientists can detect waves of electrical activity lapping across the surface of the brain: these are alpha waves, and in tests it was observed that people with high creative output have more alpha waves. In this relaxed mind (Re) state is when we unwind and allow our tentative ideas and growing hunches to bubble up to the surface. John Cleese said

we don’t know where we get our ideas from but we know we don’t get them from our laptops.”

We all know that we often have our ideas when we are not directly thinking about the problem – the classic out running or in the shower ‘aha’ moment. This is known as incubation and to tap into our wandering mind (W) is to allow time for distraction and mental detours, which may seem counter-intuitive. But it can result in the best ideas.

The insightful mind (In) takes over when you’ve done the legwork first so you can wait for the lightning strike of inspiration and make associations.

When it comes to creativity and the power of the mind there is still so much that remains unknown. But understanding a bit more about different brain states can help you to decide when to put in the conscious, effortful mental work and knowing when to let the mind surrender to the powerful workings of the unconscious mind.

This article first appeared in Creative Review 24th November 2017

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