The death of ‘right brain thinking’

A new study published in Psychological Bulletin has just reviewed all the neuroscience research on creative thinking and found no good evidence for the pop-culture idea that the right side of the brain is more involved in ‘creative thinking’.

Sadly, the full text isn’t available online, but the abstract of the study contains all the punchlines:

A review of EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies of creativity and insight.

Psychol Bull. 2010 Sep;136(5):822-48.

Dietrich A, Kanso R.

Creativity is a cornerstone of what makes us human, yet the neural mechanisms underlying creative thinking are poorly understood. A recent surge of interest into the neural underpinnings of creative behavior has produced a banquet of data that is tantalizing but, considered as a whole, deeply self-contradictory. We review the emerging literature and take stock of several long-standing theories and widely held beliefs about creativity.

A total of 72 experiments, reported in 63 articles, make up the core of the review. They broadly fall into 3 categories: divergent thinking, artistic creativity, and insight. Electroencephalographic studies of divergent thinking yield highly variegated results. Neuroimaging studies of this paradigm also indicate no reliable changes above and beyond diffuse prefrontal activation. These findings call into question the usefulness of the divergent thinking construct in the search for the neural basis of creativity.

A similarly inconclusive picture emerges for studies of artistic performance, except that this paradigm also often yields activation of motor and temporoparietal regions. Neuroelectric and imaging studies of insight are more consistent, reflecting changes in anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal areas.

Taken together, creative thinking does not appear to critically depend on any single mental process or brain region, and it is not especially associated with right brains, defocused attention, low arousal, or alpha synchronization, as sometimes hypothesized. To make creativity tractable in the brain, it must be further subdivided into different types that can be meaningfully associated with specific neurocognitive processes.


Link to PubMed entry for studies (via @sarcastic_f).

23 thoughts on “The death of ‘right brain thinking’”

  1. In The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon wrote that “the study of lateralization had been afflicted with the problem of being an interesting topic for popular psychology, and of offering an attractive source of analogies for theorizing about almost every aspect of the mind.”

    1. I seem to remember Betty Edwards herself prefacing the book with a disclaimer that it was just an effective and useful tool for learning to see as an artist, not an accurate description for how the brain works.

      (“The left-brain/right-brain” metaphor is just a really easy meme to grab onto and spread.)

    2. hahahaha…i know, i hate it, everytime i am told of a new discovery which throws away all prior ideas about any-thing. but i guess such is life, as Sócrates very well said: “i only know that i know nothing”, or perhaps the translation is “all i know is, i know nothing”, anyway, you get the point…(yo sólo sé que no sé nada)

  2. Thanks!

    I’m glad they didn’t just let this one rest. This has been one of my pet peeves for years. Taken seriously, the creative right brain idea makes a mockery of the diverse contexts in which creativity is studied.

    The popular “metaphor” also misrepresents the study of hemisphere asymmetry, which is much more interesting and subtle than the popular view continues to insist.

    Yet you still see otherwise good authors who should know better using this “as a metaphor” because it is accessible rather than because it is true.

  3. “Guess it’s time to throw out my copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.”

    Nah, just close your left eye while reading it, so you’ll be reading it more logically. 😉

  4. What is creativity? Making new associations or constructs? Probably pretty closely related to learning and therefore it must take place on both sides of the brain. (Unless you think there are skills that can’t be learned. If that’s the case, get away from me.) This pop idea that creativity takes place on one side of the brain has always seemed like a big over-simplification to me.

    “Creativity” is one of those dumb labels that describes at least a hundred different things. Here’s another — “Attention Deficit Disorder.”

  5. A meta analysis published in Brain and Cognition 72 (2010)reaches a different conclusion, finding “relative right dominance during creative thinking.”

    1. Jeremy,

      It doesn’t sound like a very strong conclusion of “right dominance for creativity” to me, it sounds like they are reporting that they can find “right dominance” under certain conditions by mining the data in a particular way. The question from my perspective is not whether you can find hemisphere differences in task performance (of course you can) but whether that makes sense as a way to characterize the way the brain accomplishes “creative” performances. I don’t see this supporting the latter. However I only have the abstract so far.

      Brain and Cognition
      Volume 72, Issue 3, April 2010, Pages 442-448

      “Hemispheric specialization and creative thinking: A meta-analytic review of lateralization of creativity”

      Konstantin M. Mihova, Markus Denzlerb and Jens Förster

      In the last two decades research on the neurophysiological processes of creativity has found contradicting results. Whereas most research suggests right hemisphere dominance in creative thinking, left-hemisphere dominance has also been reported. The present research is a meta-analytic review of the literature to establish how creative thinking relates to relative hemispheric dominance. The analysis was performed on the basis of a non-parametric vote-counting approach and effect-size calculations of Cramer’s phi suggest relative dominance of the right hemisphere during creative thinking. Moderator analyses revealed no difference in predominant right-hemispheric activation for verbal vs. figural tasks, holistic vs. analytical tasks, and context-dependent vs. context-independent tasks. Suggestions for further investigations with the meta-analytic and neuroscience methodologies to answer the questions of left hemispheric activation and further moderation of the effects are discussed.

  6. I heard something very interesting. That the interpretation, and understanding or appreciation of music is handled in the right-brain. That doesn’t make very much sense does it?

    On a now related note, I think right-brain thinking will never go out of style. To a certain degree, in this society at least–creativity is definitely not something that is rewarded.

    So it does make sense that right-brain thinking is going out of style. Kids aren’t encouraged to be creative!

    1. B&R: Unless you were trying to be funny, I think you may have missed the point somewhat. The issue addressed in the article isn’t whether we could be or should be more creative, the issue is whether it makes sense to think of creativity in general as only using one cerebral hemisphere.

      I agree that original thinking could and should be encouraged more. I also think calling it “right brained thinking” is probably inaccurate and to me seems to serve no useful purpose in the long run.

      From my perspective, encouraging and appying original thinking is an art, it is at least partly domain specific (people are very often usefully creative in some areas and not others), and it is not useful to think of it as a simple switching of sides of our head. In my opinion.

  7. I am convinced with the result. Our body is a perfect system, and owned by eternal soul. Not only brain but also our body is the system that works synchronously. Usually in model centric study, if model is not convincing, than model is either changed or rejected. Here it is time to observe dichotomy of body and soul. By understanding this dichotomy we shall be able to appreciate and understand the confluence of logic and experience. Experiences are subjective and Objectivity is fundamental to Logic. Series of different experiences can be explained by means logical model. Other way around i.e., series of experiences may not be able to deduce Logical model.

  8. I’ll just offer one final comment on this topic to clarify my thoughts.

    In any research data, the more wiggle room you have in your basic concepts, the easier it is to define them in a way that confirms your existing theory and lets you derive different conclusions from the same heterogeneous data.

    I think it’s reasonable science to do that so long as you specify what you are measuring and how, but it is poor science when you smuggle in conclusions about “creativity” and such to give your paper more attention or try to tie it to popular myths.

    Take a different but similar example. Consider the damage done to our understanding of mental ability by defining “genius” as very high IQ, which was done for a long time in psychometrics based on the theory that IQ measures mental power in general. Not entirely unreasonable, but it obscures the heterogeneity of the data.

    The problem in that case is that there are so many counter-examples of “genius” in specific areas that do not have high IQ and so many people with high IQ that do not resemble even vaguely contribute what we think of as genius – that the technical definition takes on a very over-reaching quality.

    My argument is that this very same thing happens with “creativity”. All we have in terms of definitions of how creative problem solving happens are hammers, so the problem looks like a nail suitble for the hammer we have at hand.

    I hope that clarifies my thinking somewhat.

    kind regards,


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  10. A little off-topic but please help..!

    I am having some serious issues at the moment… I had, a few months ago, what can only be described as a breakdown, following a prolonged period of mental unrest.

    My main problem is critically /destructively analysing everything – therefore not being able to switch off and enjoy anything.

    Before, IQ test measured at 147. Now, it is 168.

    I did one of the right-left assessments… 58% right brained showing 84% random processing:

    I know these tests are limited but this ‘result’ certainly rings true – I live in chaos, ‘see’ patterns in everything, being able to make unrealistically accurate inferences from little source information.

    I am completely lost. I have had to quit my consultancy work and have no idea what is happening to me or what I should do with my life.

    Does anyone recognise anything here – does anyone have any ideas as to what I should read or do to help myself. Does anyone have an idea as to what kind of work is suitable for me?

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