A new Israeli study finds that activity in the brain’s left hemisphere may stifle creativity, suggesting there really is something to the idea of being “left-brained.”
The popular notion that some people’s brains are dominated by a particular hemisphere — with intuitive people being “right-brained” and logical people being left-brained — is not supported by science. But individual functions can be associated more with one side of the brain or the other.
The two-part Israeli study suggests that the left brain may be central to evaluating creative ideas. The first part of the study reviews the case of an accountant who temporarily became a prolific painter after a stroke damaged areas on the left side of his brain. The second part of the study shows that those same areas are less active in more creative people during the evaluation of creative ideas.
Taken together, the findings, published last month in the international journal Neuropsychologia, suggest that areas on the left side of the brain may be responsible for regulating creativity, the scientists say. They are now trying to boost creativity with electrical stimulation of the brain.
“Basically, the overall findings were that there is a network of areas that act to evaluate the creative process, and this activity can have a hindering effect on creative output,” said Naama Mayseless, who led the study as part of her doctoral thesis in neuropsychology at the University of Haifa.
Prof. Judith Aharon-Peretz, a neurologist at the University of Haifa, and Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a neuropsychologist at the University of Haifa and at Rambam Medical Center, coathored the study.
Brain damage with benefits?
In 1997, a 46-year-old Israeli man was hospitalized with a stroke in the left temporoparietal area of his brain — a language center that sits between the temporal and parietal lobes. In addition to motor problems, speech impairments, and heaviness and numbness in his body, he presented with an unexpected new passion for creating art.
An accountant with no prior artistic inclination, the man began sketching pictures in his hospital bed. When he was discharged, he took up watercolor painting and quickly developed a talent that, in his words, “wasn’t there before.” As the stroke healed, his newfound artistic ability ebbed along with his other symptoms, and within several months, he had completely stopped drawing and painting.
The Israeli scientists who helped treat and study the man noted that his case seemed to fit the “twofold model” of creativity. According to the theory, creative thought is made up of two processes: idea generation and idea evaluation. Idea generation is the retrieval and association of ideas from memory. Idea evaluation is the analysis of ideas for relevance and originality. The scientists suspected that the man’s stroke disabled the idea evaluation part of his brain, causing him to be inundated with ideas.
‘Not every idea is a good idea per se… There’s probably just a certain point where you have too much, and that can be detrimental to creative output’
To investigate further, the scientists gave 37 healthy people a creativity test, which involved using circles to form as many objects as possible. The scientists then had the people determine whether or not various uses for objects were creative — for example, using a pencil as a screwdriver — while monitoring their brains with fMRI.
Data analysis revealed that people who scored higher on the creativity test had less activity in the temporal and parietal lobes of their brains, near the the area of the accountant’s stroke. The scientists say the results, combined with the accountant’s case, suggest that these brain areas may make people less creative, possibly by inhibiting idea generation as predicted by the twofold model.
“Not every idea is a good idea per se. It’s good to have a certain amount of evaluation,” said Mayseless. “There’s probably just a certain point where you have too much, and that can be detrimental to creative output.”
The emergence of artistic creativity following brain damage is not unprecedented. People with various brain disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, bleeding in the brain, and brain lesions, have developed a compulsive need to create art. In most of these cases, the damage is to the left side of the brain. The accountant’s case is unique, though, in that the creativity faded along with the damage.
Brain damage is also thought to unleash brain activity other than just creativity. There is even a name for the general phenomenon: “paradoxical functional facilitation.” An example is autistic savants whose incredible drawing abilities have been attributed to increased right brain activity due to left brain dysfunction.
The scientists are now working on boosting creativity by electrically stimulating areas of the brain. The goal is to reduce activity in the brain areas identified in the study, essentially mimicking the accountant’s stroke, minus the brain damage of course.