There’s a persistent myth that creative people predominantly use the right side of their brain and analytical people the left side. But when a stroke in the left side of the brain left an artist without the ability and motivation to draw, researchers followed his recovery process closely and confirmed what they already suspected: creativity requires both halves of the brain.
The idea that people are either “left-brained” or “right-brained” was based on research that showed that some functions, such as speech, are localised to one side of the brain. But extending this to assigning entire personality traits to a brain half is an oversimplification. Unsurprisingly, whenever neuroscientists have looked more closely at the evidence for people being either “right-brained” or “left-brained”, the theory doesn’t seem to hold up.
Likewise, the idea that creativity is linked purely to the right side of the brain turns out to be more complicated. Some painters seem to change their painting style after a stroke in the left side of their brain. For example, a Polish painter lost the ability to create symbolic art.
Adding to the evidence that you really need both sides of your brain to be creative, researchers Durjoy Lahiri and Stefano Cappa recently had another rare opportunity to follow the artistic endeavours of a painter who had had a stroke in the left side of his brain.
The affected man was a practicing artist and teacher in India, but the stroke made his life harder in a few different ways. It slightly changed the way he processed language, for example. Normally he was fully bilingual, but after his stroke he struggled with his first language (Bengali) even though he had no trouble with his second language, English. That was not entirely surprising, considering the area of his brain that was affected included one of the areas involved in language processing – the left superior temporal gyrus.
But what was more interesting was the way in which his art was affected in the weeks and months following the stroke. At first he couldn’t draw well at all. He had difficulty connecting lines and colouring within them. Again, this was expected, because a stroke on the left side of his brain affected the motor skills of his right hand. But even though he gradually regained the ability to draw over the course of the study, he continued to struggle to create new art. Copying a picture went okay, but drawing something entirely new was a challenge. According to Lahiri’s and Cappa’s case study published in Cortex, the artist described the situation by saying “It’s as if I have lost my mind’s eye”. He simply couldn’t visualise what he might want to draw, and even though the right side of his brain was unaffected, this left him feeling uncreative.
Of course this study only followed one person, but it does add to the ever growing body of evidence that you really can’t simplify what the halves of the brain do. Despite the myth, creative people aren’t just “right-brained”. They use both sides of their brain to make art — and each side plays a role in creativity.