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Last Updated on August 15, 2022

Why Left Brain VS Right Brain Is A Myth (Backed By Science)

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Why Left Brain VS Right Brain Is A Myth (Backed By Science)

What do you recall hearing about the right and left brain? Did you learn that the right brain is all about logic and reason, and the left side is all about creativity?

You may have heard someone say they are “totally right-brained” or “a left-brained person.”

There is a pervasive myth that’s been making its rounds for over a century, and that is people have two hemispheres of their brains, and if they have a dominant left brain, they’re more analytical; if they have a dominant right brain, they are more creative.

There are actually a complex set of reasons as to why some people are more creative. Scientific evidence tells us that creativity is triggered in many different areas of the brain.

Before I share some tips for how you can access your creative brain centers, let’s first debunk the left brain vs. right brain myth and take a look at where the left brain/right brain lateralization theory comes from.

Debunking the Left Brain vs. Right Brain Myth

In the 1800s, scientists discovered that when patients injured one side of their brains, certain skills were lost. [1] Scientists linked those different skills to one side of the brain or the other. Thus began the left brain/right brain myth that continues today.

In a 2013 study[2] scientists scanned over 1000 people’s brains, checking for lateralization to debunk the left-brain right-brain theory.

They confirmed that certain brain functions occur predominately in one hemisphere or the other, but, in reality, the brain is actually much more interconnected and complex than the right brain/left brain lateralization theory makes it seem. [3][4]

The Left Brain/Right Brain Lateralization Theory

In the 1960s and 70s, Roger W. Sperry led 16 operations that cut the corpus callosum (the largest region that connects both brain hemispheres together) in order to try to treat patients’ epilepsy. Sperry wrote about the differences in the two hemispheres as a result of those surgeries. [5]

Sperry’s work was popularized in 1973 with a New York Times article about his lateralization theory—that people were either right-brained (read: logical) or left-brained (read: creative). From here, Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his work, and numerous other publications spread the right brain/left brain myth.

If anything, the lateralization theory of the brain is a gross exaggeration. People indeed have two hemispheres of their brains; it is also true that there are differences in the composition of those two hemispheres.

However, the hemispheres are much more interconnected than Sperry’s work initially made it seem.

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Creativity is Made Up of Many Factors

Creativity is not determined by left brain right brain dominance. It occurs due to a whole range of factors, including emotional characteristics, your personal morals, your levels of motivation, as well as where you stand intellectually.

It isn’t IQ that is the common denominator between creative minds but a general sameness in certain character traits. These include how open they are to their inner selves, their high level of tolerance regarding chaos and disarray in their surrounding areas, and their ability to be in such chaos and not only function within it but find a way to organize and structure it.

Creative types are genuine risk-takers who thrive on individuality and independence. They are masters of the unconventional. They prefer to discover. They enjoy ambiguity. They thrive on uncertainty, for it is there that they can search for answers or maybe even make an answer of their own.

It is a mixing pot of traits perhaps, but within this lies a bundle of oxymoronic characteristics, and possibly the reason why the brain is healthy when we exercise creativity. Creative personalities are both constructive and deconstructive. They find use in being both cultured and primal.

A New Metaphor for Left Brain/Right Brain

How do we get past this right brain/left brain myth?

First, let’s look at what contemporary cognitive science says about brain regions and their brain activities.

My background is as an improviser and improv researcher. I wrote Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition and thought looking at improvisation and the brain can shed light on a new model for talking about unlocking the brain’s creative potential.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans have shown that while trained improvisers improvise (musically on a keyboard, rapping, and comedic improvisation), an interesting shift happens in their brain activity. [6]

A region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases in activity and creative language centers such as the medial prefrontal cortex increase in activity. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is linked with conscious thoughts—that inner voice that tells you not to say something or criticizes you when you do.

The medial prefrontal cortex is among the brain regions linked with creativity. So, instead of thinking about the right brain and left brain, perhaps it’s more current and correct to think about more specific brain regions instead of hemispheres.

A team of neuroscientists at the University of Utah spent two years testing this out, studying over 1,000 people’s brains to see if it was true. What their research revealed was that both sides were more or less equal in their activity on average.

“Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection.” – Dr. Jeff Anderson (lead author)

So be careful when surfing the interwebs. The self-proclaimed brain messiahs aren’t always doing their research. You don’t belong in a box of the left brain or right brain.

How to Enhance Your “Right Brain”

Whether we’re talking about right brain versus left brain, creative versus logical, or medial prefrontal cortex versus dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, we still know enough to discuss strategies to tap into your creative brain’s full potential.

So, now that we’ve dispelled the right brain/left brain myth and looked at a more contemporary cognitive neuroscience theory of brain regions and creativity centers, let’s look at how to tap into the potential of your creative brain.

1. Performing Arts

One way to tap into your creative brain centers is to participate in the performing arts. Whether you improvise, act, or dance, the performing arts allow an embodied experience that will help you snap out of your habitual, logical thoughts.

Another benefit of the performing arts is that it changes your attention. Attention and creativity are inextricably linked. When we improvise, act, or dance, we focus intently on our fellow performers. This means we are forced to focus less on conscious, logical thoughts. This frees us up for more creative thinking and expression. [7]

One of the conclusions of my research on improvisation is that focusing intensely on fellow improvisers and the task at hand makes it more likely that we experience a flow state. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi,[8] a Professor of Psychology and Management, defines flow as an optimal psychological state when our skills match the difficulty of the task at hand. Our perception of time is altered as we get into the zone and become more present and at the moment during our chosen activity. [9]

A flow state is a creative state. It’s the opposite of crunching numbers and forcing ourselves to work out a problem with the conscious regions of our brain. So, get up, improvise, act, or dance to access your creativity.

2. Visual Art

Art teacher Betty Edwards[10] wrote a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Here again, we see that a shift in our attention can lead us to an increase in our creative thinking.

Edwards’ book gives art students tricks to shift the way they see the world. For example, one exercise encourages students to literally flip whatever it is they’re drawing upside down before they draw it. This forces budding artists to see the object in a new way. This shift allows them to focus more on the individual components and patterns of the object, which allows them to draw it better.

Shifting how we see things is another way we can access our creative brain centers. Take an art class to shut off your conscious, critical thoughts and start seeing things from a new, more creative perspective.

3. Zone Out

If there’s one thing creativity doesn’t like, it’s being coerced.

I think we’ve all felt that awful feeling of trying to force ourselves to be creative. When we force it, we’re trying to force our logical brain regions to be creative. It’s like asking your gardener to perform your appendix surgery. It’s just not what she does.

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Instead, stop forcing it. Take a break. Take a long walk or a relaxing bath or shower. Let your mind wander. This break lets your creative centers rise to the surface of your attention and get heard.

4. Practice Mindfulness

The final trick to start accessing your so-called right brain is to practice mindfulness.

Now, there are a lot of different ways to go about mindfulness. You can take a more physical approach with a yoga class. Or you can try meditating to become more aware and in tune with your thoughts and feelings. If you’re new to meditation, try this meditation for beginners. 

You could also try to incorporate fun mindfulness exercises[11] into your everyday routine, like forcing yourself to go on detours or pretending you’re a detective who needs to examine people and places closely.

Any way you do it, mindfulness exercises and training can help you become better versed in how your brain works and what your normal thought process is like on a day-to-day basis. If we’re ever going to reach our optimal creativity, we have to become an expert in how our individual brain functions. Mindfulness is one way to become your very own brain expert.

Mindfulness also has added benefits like calming us, slowing our breathing, and helping us become more observant, which are also great ways to tap into our creative potential.

How to Enhance Your “Left Brain”

If you have left-brain tendencies such as sharp memory skills, detail-oriented, excellent logical problem-solving, and goal-setting skills, you can choose a career that corresponds with these strengths, or you can choose a learning path that will help you expand upon them and further develop mathematical and scientific reasoning.

Don’t be afraid to go in the opposite direction – having some left-brain traits doesn’t stop you from pursuing right-brain activities and learning other strengths. Here are simple ways to enhance your “left brain”.

1. Imagination

It is very important to keep using your imagination and let your mind wander into a daydream so that these parts of the brain are engaged. The brain is an interplay of different triggers when we are creative. It is a processing system activated on the inside surface of the brain, engaging the temporal, frontal, and parietal lobes.

Our imagination (or our “imaginative network” in our brains) allows us to recall things easier, understand stories, have compassion for others, reflect on life, and better understand people’s emotions. Our imaginative network operates in conjunction with other brain networks, so it’s integral that we keep it as active as possible.

2. Break Tasks into Manageable Milestones

Left-brained people enjoy setting goals. This is because they are organized and detail-oriented. Therefore, you should break your tasks into manageable segments. Be clear about what you want to achieve. Create a schedule that maps out every segment.

3. Learn with Stats and Figures

Right-brained people learn best using language. On the other hand, left-brained people learn and grasp concepts effectively using numbers. Therefore, you can enhance your left brain by learning using patterns and trends that are rich in facts, figures, and stats.

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4. Read Lists and Summarizations

Left-brained people love seeing all the pieces of information presented in front of them. Lists that outline each step of a discussion point or task appeal to them. Therefore, you can enhance your left brain by reading books, articles, and journals that have summarizations. Breaking ideas, facts, and concepts to make them digestible can boost your productivity and performance while enhancing your left brain.

Final Thoughts

So, it may not be correct to say that our right brain is our creative brain, but it is still a valid pursuit to optimize our creative brain centers.

The key to doing so is to relax, become observant, shift your perspective, move your body, try something new, and, whatever you do, don’t force it.

Creativity can feel slippery. It can abandon us when we need it most, but by slowing down and looking at things from a new perspective, we can give ourselves a better chance of tapping into our ultimate creativity, even if that doesn’t exactly mean our “right brain.”

TL;DR

Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

Why Left Brain VS Right Brain Is A Myth (Backed By Science)

In 2013, scientists confirmed that certain brain functions occur predominately in one hemisphere or the other, but in reality, the brain is much more interconnected and complex than the right brain/left brain lateralization theory makes it seem.

Creativity is not determined by left brain right brain dominance. It occurs due to a range of factors, including emotional characteristics, personal morals, levels of motivation, and where you stand intellectually.

Right-brained people learn best using language. On the other hand, left-brained people learn and grasp concepts effectively using numbers.

Left-brained people love seeing all the pieces of information presented in front of them. Lists that outline each step of a discussion point or task appeal to them.

People indeed have two hemispheres of their brains; it is also true that there are differences in the composition of those two hemispheres.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Clay Drinko

Clay Drinko is an educator and the author of PLAY YOUR WAY SANE (January 2021 Simon & Schuster)

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