It happened again – right in the middle of my yoga class last Saturday. Our yoga instructor was trying to make us feel good about the balancing posture we were trying to assume by explaining that each side of the body has a different level of flexibility and stability. And then he said, “It’s just like the two sides of your brain. One’s creative and one’s analytical!” I almost fell out of my tree pose!
Later, he was nice enough to listen to my explanation about how recent research in the fields of neuroscience and creativity research has raised doubts about the two hemispheres and have challenged the worn-out definition of creativity as divergent thinking, etc. But as I rolled up my map, I again wondered why this myth about creativity and left and right brains has persisted over so many years.
According to creativity researcher and neuroscientist Arne Dietrich, creativity has actually been stuck in a rut since the 1960’s. He finds it ironic that there has been so much dogged perseverance over the last 50 years in the field of creativity, of all topics, around the faulty belief that creativity is all about divergent thinking and that divergent thinking belongs to the right brain. As Dietrich put it, “It’s a case of a good idea that became, over time, a straitjacket out of which the field of creativity has yet to fully escape. “
Why has these myths persisted? According to one researcher who has studied split-brain patients for decades, “Some scientists oversimplified the idea, and clever journalists further enhanced them. Cartoonists had a field day with it all.” And although, in his opinion and in Dietrich’s, the data has clearly shown that these ideas are flatly mistaken, they became a runaway train that has become next to impossible to stop.
Even if it turns out that the two hemispheres have different functions, something that is still to be proven, there is no doubt that creativity requires the whole brain working together. Creativity is no longer viewed as just requiring divergent thinking and is now more appropriately defined as “the ability to produce different and valuable work.” As such, creativity requires both divergent and convergent thinking. What is even more interesting is that research has also proven that 1) divergent thinking is not always novel and convergent thinking can just as easily result in novel ideas and 2) that the whole brain – not just one hemisphere — takes part in the fun of coming up with novel ideas and figuring out how to make them work.
You may also wonder why I am so passionate about anything that stereotypes who or what is or is not creative. I believe it’s absolutely essential to recognize individual differences in the way we are creative just as it is important to realize that individuals use their brains differently. Why? Because to me seeing yourself as creative is so critical to producing novel and useful work as well as to fostering more self-esteem and resilience. Thus it’s my mission in life to ensure that everyone learns how they are creative and what they need to do to be even more creative!
Adapted from “Who’s afraid of a cognitive neuroscience of creativity? By Arne Dietrich, Methods 42 (2007) 22-27. www.sciencedirect.com