Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Right brain, wrong brain

with 2 comments

The left and right hemispheres of the brain

On this blog, I’ll often mention the left and right hemispheres of the brain to illustrate some larger point. Just yesterday, for instance, I invoked Colin Wilson’s theory that imaginative engagement, for both the reader and the writer, depends on bringing both hemispheres into sync, either by slowing down the left hemisphere or speeding up the right. I’ve referred to myself several times as a left-brained writer, and I’ve talked about ways of fooling the right brain into participating in the process, whether it’s in research, daydreaming, or the act of writing itself. I’ve even spoken briefly about the startling theory of Julian Jaynes, argued in great detail in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, that consciousness as we know it arose within the era of recorded history, and that before this, men and women were simply obeying orders, heard as if spoken by an outside god or spirit, that wandered from the right brain into the left.

That said, it’s important to recognize that as our knowledge of the brain’s workings has advanced, the theory of the left and right hemispheres has been largely replaced by a more sophisticated breakdown of the areas in which creativity and other activities take place. The blog at Scientific American recently posted a takedown of this theory, pointing out that creativity draws on both sides:

Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task…Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.

Different tasks will activate different areas—Broca’s and Wernicke’s area for language, the visuospatial network for, well, basically what it sounds like—and other networks play various roles depending on the stage of the creative process: the attentional control network for focused activity, the imagination network for fantasy and empathy, with the attentional flexibility network allocating resources to the two as necessary.

Mind map for my article in The Daily Beast

On some level, you could argue that it doesn’t really matter where these functions take place, and that the left brain/right brain dichotomy retains its usefulness as a metaphor—which is true, and why I’ll probably continue to use it. But the neuroscience of creativity is still worth studying, if only because it serves as a reminder of how multifaceted the creative process really is. The rational left brain, or at least the functions we’d like to associate with it, is intimately involved with any extended artistic activity: writing a novel sometimes resembles bookkeeping as much as poetry, and even the most intuitive artist won’t bring a project to completion if he can’t keep his daydreams organized. (It’s preferable, in some ways, to reach even further back into the history of ideas and think of the artist’s two halves as Apollonian and Dionysian. Greek civilization produced the Discobolus of Myron, but it was also a culture in which supplicants cut the throats of sheep into trenches the ground to communicate with the chthonic gods—which, as poets like Anne Carson know, is basically a version of the drama being played out in every artist’s head.)

The brain, then, is a sort of team of rivals, all of which play a role at the appropriate time. David Mamet speaks of the Apollonian side of the playwright, which creates an outline to pass along to the Dionysian side, which writes the dialogue, and this underlying truth remains regardless of the terms we apply to it. It’s simplistic to even draw the line at the brain: as I’ve said before, the head has a body, and much of what an artist does is inseparable from the muscle memory embodied in the hands and the qualities of the five senses. Finding a way to coordinate all these pieces in a predictable way is the central problem of an artist’s life, and nearly everything we do—from the cultivation of good habits to the occasional abuse of caffeine and similar substances—comes down to controlling the parts of mind that we all have to a greater or lesser extent. Even if we give up control, it’s in a controlled way, with more rational parts of the brain ready to step in if the others get out of hand. And every writer finds his or her own solutions. We’ve all been given the same set of tools; the hard part is learning to use them, no matter what names we call them by.

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting! I have read a fair amount about the right brain’s mechanics versus the left brain’s and I’ve always felt like the descriptions seemed like an oversimplification. A strong, dynamic, creative brain has all its parts coordinated—- I totally agree with the article!


    August 21, 2013 at 10:03 am

  2. Thanks so much!


    August 22, 2013 at 9:20 am

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