New Insights on the Creative Brain
“Right brain good, left brain bad.”
That belief about creativity and the right and left hemispheres of the brain dates back to the Seventies, and reflects a very outdated bit of neuromythology. The new understanding about left and right hemispheres is more specific to the topography of the brain: when it comes to left versus right, do you mean left front, left middle, left rear? We now understand that when it comes to creativity it’s not just left-right, it’s also up-down – it’s the whole brain. Here, it’s important to understand a structural difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere.
The right hemisphere has more neural connections both within itself and throughout the brain. It has strong connections to emotional centers like the amygdala and to subcortical regions throughout the lower parts of the brain.
The left side has far fewer connections within itself and beyond to the rest of the brain. The left hemisphere is made of neatly stacked vertical columns, which allows the clear differentiation of separate mental functions, but less integration of those functions. By comparison, the right hemisphere is more of a mix structurally. The creative brain is not just right-brain: it involves the whole-brain, left-right-top-bottom, as the creative brain state accesses a large web of connections.
Let’s look at how that maps across the dominant thinking about creativity. You may have heard a classic model of the four stages of creativity (it’s more than a century old): Step one, you define and frame the problem. Many people say that one of the signs of geniuses in a field is the ability to see problems and challenges and ask questions that no one else sees or asks. So first find and frame the creative challenge. Second, immerse yourself, dig deep. Gather ideas, data, information, anything that’s going to help you with a creative breakthrough.
The third phase is a little counter-intuitive for some people: let it all go. Just relax. The best ideas come while you’re taking a long hot shower, going for a walk, or on vacation. Here, the self-mastery comes in knowing when to let go, and knowing that you need to let go. The final stage, the fourth, is execution – and, of course, many brilliant ideas fail here, because they aren’t implemented well.
This model is accurate to a point – but life is not that simple. I’ve found that people whose professions demand a stream of creative insights have a more complicated relationship to creativity than a neat four-stage model suggests. George Lucas, for example, says that when he has to write a script or review one, he goes to a cottage behind his house, and just writes. Does he ever just let go into a reverie and see what comes to him? “No,” he says, “I have to keep working all the time.” That’s how one creative genius works (but I suspect he has uniquely fluent creative circuitry).
The second creative genius I talked to about this was the composer Phil Glass, one of the world’s most renowned contemporary composers. I asked him, “When do you get your creative ideas?” His answer surprised me. He said, “I know exactly when they’re going to come: between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. That’s when I work on my new compositions.”
More usual though, might be a third creative expert I talked to: Adrienne Weiss, a woman who does product branding. She had an assignment to help rebrand the global ice cream shop chain Baskin-Robbins, including coming up with a fresh logo. She asked herself, “Well, what do we have? Baskin-Robbins is famous for its 31 flavors. How are we going to make that into something new and distinctive?” After getting nowhere just by thinking about this, one night as she was sleeping she woke up from a dream in which she saw the name ‘Baskin-Robbins’. Highlighted in the loop of the “B” in Baskin was a “3,” and in the stem of the “R” was a “1.” That’s “31,” the number of their flavors. If you look at the new logo of Baskin-Robbins you’ll see that 31 pop out of the B and the R. And it came to her in a dream.
Brain studies on creativity reveal what goes on at that “Aha!” moment, when we get a sudden insight. If you measure EEG brain waves during a creative moment, it turns out there is very high gamma activity that spikes 300 milliseconds before the answer comes to us. Gamma activity indicates the binding together of neurons, as far-flung brain cells connect in a new neural network – as when a new association emerges. Immediately after that gamma spike, the new idea enters our consciousness.
This heightened activity focuses on the temporal area, a center on the side of the right neocortex. This is the same brain area that interprets metaphor and “gets” jokes. It understands the language of the unconscious, what Freud called the “primary process”: the language of poems, of art, of myth. It’s the logic of dreams, where anything goes and the impossible is possible.
That high gamma spike signals that the brain has a new insight. At that moment, right hemisphere cells are using these longer branches and connections to other parts of the brain. They’ve collected more information and put it together in a novel organization. What’s the best way to mobilize this brain ability? It’s first to concentrate intently on the goal or problem, and then relax into stage three: let go. The converse of letting go – trying to force an insight – can inadvertently stifle creative breakthrough. If you’re thinking and thinking about it, you may just be getting more tense and not coming up with fresh ways of seeing things, let alone a truly creative insight.
So to get to the next stage, you just let go. Unlike the intense focus of grappling with a problem head-on, the third stage is characterized by a high alpha rhythm, which signals mental relaxation, a state of openness, of daydreaming and drifting, where we’re more receptive to new ideas. This sets the stage for the novel connections that occur during the gamma spike.
Those moments of out-of-the-blue, spontaneous creative insights may seem to come out of nowhere. But we can assume that the same process has gone on, where there was some degree of engagement in a creative problem, and then during “down time” neural circuits make novel associations and connections. Even when creative insights seem to arise on their own, the brain may be going through the same moves as during the three classical stages.
On the other hand, I would guess that the three or four classical stages of creativity are somewhat of a useful fiction – the creative spirit is more freewheeling than that. I think the main neural action is between intense focus on the problem and then relaxing about it.
And when that creative idea arrives, it’s almost certain that the brain has gone through that same heightened pitch of gamma activity that was found in the lab.
Is there a way to create the conditions whereby the gamma spike is more likely to occur? Gamma spikes normally come at random – they can’t be forced. But the mental stage can be set. The pre-work for the gamma spike includes defining the problem, then immersing yourself in it. And then you let it all go – and it’s during the let-go period that that gamma spike is most likely to arise, along with that “Aha!” moment, the light bulb over the head of a cartoon figure.
There’s a physical marker we sometimes feel during a gamma spike: pleasure. With the “Aha!” comes joy. Then there’s that fourth stage, implementation, where a good idea will either sink or swim. I remember talking to the director of a huge research lab. He had about 4,000 scientists and engineers working for him. He told me, “We have a rule about a creative insight: if somebody offers a novel idea, instead of the next person who speaks shooting it down – which happens all too often in organizational life – the next person who speaks must be an ‘angel’s advocate,’ someone who says, ‘that’s a good idea and here’s why.'”
Creative ideas are like a fragile bud – they’ve got to be nurtured so they can blossom.