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Is it true that creativity resides in the right hemisphere of the brain?

Ned Herrmann is an educator and consultant, who has spent two decades developing models of brain activity and its relationship to the creative process. Herrmann headed management education at General Electric and founded the Ned Herrmann Group in 1980. Here is his view.

In answering this question, I need to refer to both the left and right hemispheres, as well as the limbic system. The two hemispheres are frequently referred to as left brain/right brain.

The left brain/right brain concept of brain specialization was thoroughly researched and documented by the surgeon Joseph Bogen; Robert Ornstein, author of The Psychology of Consciousness; and Roger Sperry, the psychobiologist who conducted landmark "split brain" experiments, that earned him the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1981.

Bogen first suggested to Roger Sperry that he conduct experiments on his so-called "split brained" patients, those whose corpus callosi had been surgically separated to alleviate intractable epilepsy. These award-winning experiments demonstrated significant differences in the mental capabilities of the brain's two hemispheres. The left hemisphere was shown to be logical, analytic, quantitative, rational and verbal, whereas the right hemisphere was revealed to be conceptual, holistic, intuitive, imaginative and non-verbal. Thus a classic dichotomy was born.

Many brain researchers and authors have documented this dichotomy extensively over the past 20 years. Ornstein was among the first, but many others followed. And, through their writing, they popularized the notion of left brain/right brain mental processing. But having personally researched both brain function and creativity for the same 20 years, I have concluded that creativity is a mental process utilizing all of the brain's specialized capabilities. It is, therefore, "whole brained."

The Whole Brain Model


FOUR QUADRANTS define not only the left brain
and right brain modes but also the cerebral and limbic modes.

FOUR QUADRANTS define not only the left brain (A, B) and right brain (C, D) modes but also the cerebral (A, D) and limbic (B, C) modes.

The significant link to the right brain is pretty clear. The specialized characteristics of the right hemisphere make it the seat of curiosity, synergy, experimentation, metaphoric thinking, playfulness, solution finding, artistry, flexibility, synthesizing and in general, risk taking. In addition, it is likely to be opportunistic, future oriented, welcoming of change, and to function as the center of our visualization capability.

Every one of these specialized modes is capable of enhancing an individual's creative thinking. For example, an intuitive idea that pops into your mind and appears to solve a problem can be experimented with, visualized, integrated with other ideas and ultimately developed into a possible solution. That's the right hemisphere part.

Now, to do something about that possible solution requires different specialized mental processes, and these, by and large, are located in the left hemisphere. Diagnosing the proposed solution to determine whether it solves the real problem makes use of our rational processes of analysis and logic.

The next creativity step might be how to factoring in sequence, timing or implementation procedures. Since the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere are massively interconnected (through the corpus callosum), it is not only possible, but also highly likely, that the creative person can iterate back and forth between these specialized modes to arrive at a practical solution to a real problem. If the right hemisphere were somehow disconnected from the left and confined to its own specialized thinking modes, it might be relegated to only "soft" fantasy solutions, pipe dreams or weird ideas that would be difficult, if not impossible, to fully implement in the real world. The left brain helps keep the right brain on track.

Overall, creativity is a whole brain process. The brain is an electrochemical organ that works on the basis of neural activity that occurs in the cortex; it is well demonstrated that "thinking" takes place exclusively within the cortex. There are four main structures in the brain with a "thinking like" cortex. Two of them are the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere. The other two are the left half of the limbic system and the right half of the limbic system. The limbic system is a bilateral complex of specialized structures that deal with such processes as memory, emotion, sequence, time, fight or flight and sensory responses. The principal limbic elements, each with its own cortex, are the hippocampus, the thalamus and the amygdala. Just as the two hemispheres are hardwired together by the corpus callosum, the two halves of the limbic system are similarly joined by the hippocampal commissure.

A model can be constructed that displays the four thinking structures in four quadrants (illustration above). This Whole Brain Model depicts the four structures as viewed from the back of the head. Building on this model, it is also possible to develop two other related models that define the Four Selves and the Creative Self. The Four Selves model describes the thinking characteristics of an individual in every day situations, and the Creative Self model describes them when that same individual is acting creatively.

The Whole Brain Creativity and Innovation model (illustration below) shows how specialized thinking modes are allocated to the four quadrants; interconnecting arrows illustrate the iterative capability of the brain. What I consider to be the most understandable description of the creative process consists of six phases: interest, preparation, incubation, illumination, verification and application. Each step of this process has its own characteristic brain waves.

Creativity-Innovation Model


Creativity Model

From a left brain/right brain perspective, the creative process can be diagnosed as follows: Interest (left and right), preparation (left), incubation (right), illumination (right), verification (left) application (left and right). It is a balanced process--four "lefts" and four "rights."

Over the many years that I've worked with this whole brain concept, I've become aware of significant male/female differences in mental processing preferences and competencies. Several are particularly relevant to creativity. It's clear that although both genders have left mode and right mode specialties, they are very different. To take advantage of these differences, it is highly desirable to have a balance of males and females on any creative team. Creative teams comprised of only males or only females are usually mentally incomplete--which often results in them jumping to early conclusions, arriving at poor solutions or both.

In summary, the role of the right hemisphere is essential to the creative process. But it supplies only a quarter of the thinking needed to realize the full creative process. We also need the left hemisphere and both halves of the limbic system to optimize creative output. And gender-balanced teams are clearly the most creatively productive

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