Neuroscience of creativity

By Emily Fasold

Painters, designers, architects and other creative individuals are typically thought of as “right-brained.” But a new study from the University of Southern California suggests that creativity may require more logical “left brain” thinking than

previously thought.

The study, published online last month in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, showed that while the right brain does the bulk of the heavy lifting in creative thinking, the left side of the brain also plays a critical role.

“In the popular media, people usually associate the right brain with creativity,” said lead researcher Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, an assistant professor of neuroscience. “But it’s definitely more complicated than that.”

Aziz-Zadeh and fellow researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan the brains of architecture students, who tend to be visually imaginative, while they performed creative tasks.

As they were scanned, participants were asked to visualize images that could be created by rearranging the No. 8, a circle and the letter C. They also mentally pieced together shapes to create rectangles, a task that requires spatial processing but not necessarily creativity.

The results showed that the logical, mathematical “left side” of the students’ brains lit up just as much as the creative side while performing the artistic task.

“I think that the two hemispheres do complementary processing,” Aziz-Zadeh said. “The right hemisphere of the brain provides the ‘big picture,’ and the left controls sequential processing. Both of those are important for creativity.”

The research also showed that the students’ medial frontal cortexes, the area of the brain that controls planning and problem solving, were highly active while performing tasks. According to Aziz-Zadeh, this suggests that the left and right hemispheres of the brain have an equally important influence on the creative process.

“I think what was most surprising is how simple the results were,” she said. “Usually, studies produce all of these results that you don’t know what to make of, but our results on this study were very clear.”

The study’s findings make sense to Jeffrey Davis, a creativity consultant and author of “The Journey to the Center of the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing.”

“Creativity is a more whole-brained activity than we’d like to imagine,” Davis said.

For example, he said playing music requires the left-brained skills of repetitive drills and memorization along with improvisation and emotional connection to the music, which are right-brained functions.

“Reason relies on emotion,” Davis said. “Logical decisions such as buying a car are actually influenced by highly emotional impulses [from the right brain] that we then rationalize.”

Francesco Dandekar, USC undergraduate and co-author of the study, said the research, which was conducted during the course of three years, is the first to specifically examine the left brain’s role in creative, visuospatial tasks.

“It’s really exciting to be at the forefront of an aspect of neuroscience,” Dandekar said. “We didn’t have any previous studies to model ours after, and hopefully our investigations will pave the way for further research in creativity.”

Both researchers would like to perform similar studies on musicians, writers and other creative individuals, although nothing is currently planned.

“Creativity is fascinating because it is one of the few human resources that really separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom,” Aziz-Zadeh said. “Trying to understand what causes that is a fascinating topic we would like to explore further.”