Creativity and the “right brain myth”

For years the self-help gurus have been telling us “tap into the right side of your brain to stimulate creativity.” But is it really true?

A new study suggests it’s not necessarily which side of the brain is dominant – it’s how well the two brain hemispheres communicate that sets highly creative people apart.

The study is part of a decade-old field, connectomics, which uses network science to understand the brain. Instead of focusing on specific brain regions in isolation, connectomics researchers use advanced brain imaging techniques to identify and map the rich, dense web of links between them.

The study focused on the network of white matter connections of both sides of the brain. The brain’s white matter lies underneath the outer grey matter. It is composed of bundles of wires, or axons, which connect billions of neurons and carry electrical signals between them.

Researchers used an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which allowed them to peer through the skull of a living person and trace the paths of all the axons by following the movement of water along them. Computers then comb through each of the 1-gigabyte scans and convert them to three-dimensional maps — wiring diagrams of the brain.

The team used a combination of tests to assess creativity. The subjects were measured on a type of problem-solving called ‘divergent thinking’ or the ability to come up with many answers to a question. The participants also filled out a questionnaire about their achievements in ten areas, including the visual arts, music, creative writing, dance, cooking and science.

The responses were used to calculate a composite creativity score for each person.

They found no statistical differences in connectivity between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. But when they compared people who scored in the top 15 percent on the creativity tests with those in the bottom 15 percent, high-scoring people had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres.

This new method – studying the patterns of interconnections in the brain rather than the regions of the brain is a promising development that is being used in other areas of neuroscience. Researchers are now using these statistical methods to uncover early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, to better understand dementia, epilepsy, schizophrenia and other neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury or coma and to find out whether brain connectivity varies with I.Q.