Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The best creativity requires the "left brain," too

In an article in a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled For Innovation, Dodge the Prefrontal Police, Alison Gopnik discusses what it takes to have creative ideas--for example, about how to use a Kleenex tissue.

A recent experiment shows that subjects were able to think of more ideas when their prefrontal cortex, specifically their left prefrontal cortex, was disrupted:

The researchers got volunteers to think up either ordinary or unusual uses for everyday objects like Kleenex. While the participants were doing this task, the scientists either disrupted their left prefrontal cortex with tDCS or used a sham control procedure. In the control, the researchers placed the electrodes in just the same way but surreptitiously turned off the juice before the task started.

Both groups were equally good at thinking up ordinary uses for the objects. But the volunteers who got zapped generated significantly more unusual uses than the unzapped control-group thinkers, and they produced those unusual uses much faster.
This sounds like yet another argument for how the left brain is an obstacle to creativity--and yet another argument for the importance of playing around and doing open-ended activities rather than analyzing things:
Portable frontal lobe zappers are still (thankfully) infeasible. But we can modify our own brain functions by thinking differently—improvising, freestyling, daydreaming or some types of meditation. I like hanging out with 3-year-olds. Preschool brains haven't yet fully developed the prefrontal system, and young kids' free-spirited thinking can be contagious.
But, as Gopnik points out:
There's a catch, though. It isn't quite right to say that losing control makes you more creative. Centuries before neuroscience, the philosopher John Locke distinguished two human faculties, wit and judgment. Wit allows you to think up wild new ideas, but judgment tells you which ideas are actually worth keeping. Other neuroscience studies have found that the prefrontal system re-engages when you have to decide whether an unlikely answer is actually the right one.
I first noticed this division of labor between inspiration and analysis while, of all things, working out problems for a highly abstract logic course. I'd spend hours struggling to come up with some sort of proof. Eventually, I'd take a break. And it was typically at some point during this break that an inspiration would come. I'd return to the problem with a new awareness of how to proceed. But as soon as I put pencil to paper, I'd see that, while the inspiration had pointed me in the right direction, I still needed to proceed step by logical step. Left-brain redux.

My experience with pre-analytical inspiration in this particular course suggests an addendum to this blog post: to wit, it's not just that creativity requires the "left brain", too, but also that even "left brain" fields like logic, for all the initial analytical legwork they require, also involve some kind of pre-analytical creativity.

1 comment:

Deirdre Mundy said...

I have ADHD, which some scientists think of as a prefrontal cortex issue.

And I am really good at those 'creativity' puzzles---like in Odyssey of the Mind, when we had to think of as many kids of 'can' as we could or as many possible uses for a toothpick....

However....I'm not sure that inducing ADHD in healthy adults is a good or worthy pursuit!