Along with the erroneous belief that language was only in the left hemisphere and spatial abilities in the right, some suggested that creativity — something that relied on spatial imagery — must be a right hemisphere function as well. This was fueled by multiple illustrations showing rainbow divergent thinking right hemispheres next to mathematically proportioned square, logical thinking hemispheres on the left.
All unanswered questions beg a range of hypotheses. Just where creativity might be in the brain has been in question for decades, if not centuries. After Sperry’s Nobel Prize in 1981, researchers scrambled to identify exactly which brain functions did what. Harpaz’s 1990 article “Asymmetry of Hemispheric Functions and Creativity: An Empirical Examination” published in The Journal of Creative Behavior, cited studies from the 1960s and 1970s. Harpaz declared that the right hemisphere “appears to be dominant in synthetic, nonverbal, complete, whole unit, spatial and time-dependent functions” and was, therefore, responsible for creativity. After 1981, researchers spent the next decade shoring up the arguments for creativity in the right brain, only to be challenged by different definitions of creativity and better imaging showing its broader reach and multiple, complex networks.
Where the Myth Comes From
The myth of the creative “right brain” comes from claims that science, math, and logical thinking are in the left hemisphere, and creativity in the right, which in turn were born from Sperry’s Nobel Prize–winning work in 1981 on brain lateralization. Until recently, the imprecise measurements rendered by brain imaging technology in the 1990s and early 2000s led to the promotion of this myth.
What We Know Now
The most current understanding of creativity is far broader and involves multiple brain functions and structures, as well as different neurotransmitters. According to Heilman’s studies; [i]nnovation requires disengagement and divergent thinking primarily mediated by frontal networks. Creative people are often risk-takers and novelty seekers, behaviors that activate their ventral striatal reward system. Innovation also requires associative and convergent thinking, activities that are dependent on the integration of highly distributed networks. People are often most creative when they are in mental states associated with reduced levels of brain norepinephrine, which may enhance the communication between distributed networks.
Creativity is also being studied as it relates to the default mode network, or the ways the brain is active when it is at rest. Beaty and colleagues “suggest that the ability to generate creative ideas is characterized by increased functional connectivity between the inferior prefrontal cortex and the default network, pointing to a greater cooperation between brain regions associated with cognitive control and low-level imaginative processes.” This means creativity is not limited to right hemisphere functions and may not be related to “active” skill sets at all, but rather to what the brain does when it is not focused on anything in particular.
Creativity, like intelligence, is an extremely complex mental process. Locating it in the brain can be done only by first deciding which theory of creativity you adhere to, then breaking down creativity into its many sub-elements (disengagement, divergent thinking, risk taking, novelty seeking, associative and convergent thinking, cognitive control, and imaginative processes, among others) and identifying studies that establish each of these neural networks. This is a monumental task that has yet to be undertaken.
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Excerpted from Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas About the Brain © 2018 by Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co. All rights reserved.
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