December 09, 2007

Creativity and the Right Side of the Brain

Where does creativity come from? How can one person be so creative and another person appear to be uncreative? The source of creativity really stems back to the brain. Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century little was actually known about the brain. In the late 1950's and early 1960's some significant research was conducted by Roger Sperry. Sperry's work, which later earned him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981, clearly showed that the brain is divided into two major parts or hemispheres, the right brain and the left brain. His research also identified that each of the parts of the brain specializes in its own style of thinking and has different capabilities.

The Left Brain

The left brain is associated with verbal, logical, and analytical thinking. It excels in naming and categorizing things, symbolic abstraction, speech, reading, writing, arithmetic. The left brain is very linear: it places things in sequential order -- first things first and then second things second, etc. If you reflect back upon our own educational training, we have been traditionally taught to master the 3 R's: reading, writing and arithmetic -- the domain and strength of the left brain.

The Right Brain

The right brain, on the other hand, functions in a non-verbal manner and excels in visual, spatial, perceptual, and intuitive information. The right brain processes information differently than the left brain. For the right brain, processing happens very quickly and the style of processing is nonlinear and nonsequential. The right brain looks at the whole picture and quickly seeks to determine the spatial relationships of all the parts as they relate to the whole. This component of the brain is not concerned with things falling into patterns because of prescribed rules. On the contrary, the right brain seems to flourish dealing with complexity, ambiguity and paradox. At times, right brain thinking is difficult to put into words because of its complexity, its ability to process information quickly and its non-verbal nature. The right brain has been associated with the realm of creativity.

Our educational system, as well as science in general, tends to neglect the nonverbal form of intellect. What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere.
- Roger Sperry - 1973

Balancing a Checkbook

Take the activity of balancing your checkbook. The left brain engages in a very systematic, sequential and exact approach to getting the job done. The left brain strives for accuracy in making sure the balance balances. If the right brain were in charge of this activity, the right brain would probably be content to round up or down to the nearest dollar amount: an approach that is unacceptable to the left brain.

Driving in Traffic

Now let's consider another activity: driving on the interstate. This is clearly the domain of the right brain: spatial relationships, the ability to process information quickly, and to see the whole picture from all of the parts. If the left brain were in charge here, you would probably hear something like this: "Now the truck is approaching on the right entrance ramp at a speed of approximately 35 miles per hour, while the white sports car is approaching in the left lane, at 70 miles per hour, swerving slighting in and out of the right lane, and up ahead is a slowly moving car, traveling about 20 miles per hour, that keeps putting on its break lights every ten or fifteen seconds……" As you can tell, this style of processing information is too slow. The right brain takes over and quickly assesses what has to be done and reacts accordingly.

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light that flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is significant because many times when a person drives a car, the left brain basically checks out and the right brain emerges as dominant. The left brain is "suspended." When this happens, many people experience some of their most creative thinking. Or how about when you take a shower?….or shaving, or jogging, or swimming? Basic repetitive actions "suspend" the left brain and "release" the right brain.

The Whole Brain

As we develop our creative skills we must also develop our ability to suspend the left brain and to release the right. The ultimate goal for all of us is to approach our life and our work using a "whole" brain approach. We can't make the mistake of thinking that the left and right brains are two totally separate entities within our bodies. They are connected and do have areas of overlap. An integrated "whole" brain approach begins to maximize the untapped potential of the human brain

Left Brain Right Brain
Words (verbal) Images (non-verbal)
Logical Intuitive
Black & White Color
Numbers Rhythm
Sequence Imagination
Analysis Daydreaming
Lists Dimension
Critical Thinking Creative Thinking

These lists extend the above. They are not black and white alternatives. They are ends of a gradual continuum that I shift along. A mind map might stretch these as the diameters of a circle, place dots where my behavior falls, and gradually build a portrait of my way of knowing. Feel free to add your own ideas.

Left Brain Right Brain
intellect intuition
rational intuitive
rational holistic
analytic holistic
analytic relational
analysis synthesis
parts wholes
sequential intuitive
objective subjective
logical random
logical whimsical
convergent divergent
abstract concrete
directed free
propositional imaginative
linear nonlinear
sequential multiple
successive simultaneous
reasoning mystical
mathematical creative
speaking visual-pictorial
accuracy aesthetics
digital analogic
dominates submits
pattern user pattern seeker

Left Brain

Right Brain


(Courtesy: tolearn.net)
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