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The Ambidextrous Brain

Neuroscience

When you think of creativity and the brain, do you think about the different qualities and approaches of left and right? Something like, the left makes us rational, mathematical, logical, pragmatically organised. And the right unleashes our poetic, passionate, colourful, sensual side. Our creative side.

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist, writer and blogger, this is just plain wrong. The flow of creativity uses many areas of the brain, not restricting it to one particular side. He notes that when the brain is tasked with a challenge it works “as a team to get the job done”. It uses complex and large-scale networks, across the brain that can be broken down into two categories:

The Imagination (or default) Network – our contemplating mind that daydreams, reminisces and imagines future possibilities. Areas of the brain involved are deep inside the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe (medial regions), plus various outer and inner regions of the parietal cortex.

The Executive Attention Network – our present mind, that deals with the world as we see it, making sure our day-to-day activities happen. Areas of the brain involved are the lateral (outer) regions of the prefrontal cortex and areas toward the back (posterior) of the parietal lobe.

Most of us use these two networks separately. If you’re having lunch with a work colleague it would be difficult (and rather rude!) to start daydreaming of your plan to make gazillions from an exciting new start-up idea. Instead we focus on the conversation in hand, the food and how much it’s going to cost the company (or maybe we don’t actually care about that one). We find other appropriate moments to reflect on our dreams (and the Olympic sized swimming pool that will sit next to our villa in St Tropez).

But can we use both networks at once? Kaufman cites a recent experiment that monitored people’s brain activity when engaged in a working memory task. The results showed that ‘creative individuals had difficulty suppressing the precuneus area’, a part of the brain which is highly activated when using the inside network. These results showed that ‘creative individuals’ accessed both the inside and outside networks simultaneously. Allowing them to see the new in something old, the relevant in the irrelevant – to think outside the box.

Kaufman says: “I think it’s more reasonable to teach people to be open and mentally flexible. We don’t have to promote either network. We can promote both. And in so doing, we are promoting true creativity — creativity that is both novel and useful.”

There is a third network too, The Salience Network – and it is this network that helps us use the other two together. It constantly monitors both external events and the internal stream of consciousness and focuses on whatever information is most salient to solving the task at hand. Areas of the brain involved are the dorsal anterior cingulate cortices and anterior insular.

So how can we all learn to do this? Well, by practising. Like most things in life, it takes work. Video scientist Boonsri Dickinson interviewed Kaufman – watch the video below for more detail on this subject.

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