The right hemisphere of the brain is commonly considered the cradle of creativity. But several decades of studies suggest that's an overly simplistic — dare we say unimaginative? — notion. It now seems clear the creative process is a product of intense interaction between the two hemispheres.
In the process of providing fresh evidence for that proposition, a newly published paper reaches two fascinating conclusions. First, people without a strong or consistent hand preference tend to be more creative than those who are strongly right- or left-handed. Second, there appears to be a way to stimulate innovative thinking in those with limited imaginations — at least in the short-term.
A research team led by psychologist Elizabeth Shobe of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey examined whether an increase in inter-hemispheric interaction — that is, the right and left brains exchanging information — would enhance creativity. The team conducted a series of tests on 62 undergraduates ranging in age from 18 to 56.
To measure creativity, the researchers used an adaptation of the classic Alternate Uses Test. Participants were presented with 15 common household items (including a pencil, shoe and paper clip) and asked to come up with as many uses as possible for each. They were then scored on five dimensions of creativity: fluency, originality, elaboration, flexibility (the ability to come up with different categories) and appropriateness.
Participants were also asked which hand they prefer to use for 10 activities, including writing, drawing and throwing. They were then scored from 100 (perfectly right-handed) to minus 100 (perfectly left-handed). Neurological studies going back to the early 1990s suggest ambidextrous individuals, and those with inconsistent hand preferences, exhibit greater amounts of inter-hemispheric interaction than those who strongly favor one hand over the other.
The researchers found that "mixed-handers" scored higher than strong right- and left-handed people on each of the five creativity scores. This supports the idea "creativity results from the intersection of left hemisphere fixed rules and the diffuse possibilities offered by the right hemisphere," they write.
This does not mean the strongly handed among us are necessarily doomed to dullness. An additional aspect of the study found a potential catalyst for creative thinking.
Some test participants were asked to place their head on a chin rest and stare at a computer screen, which contained a colored circle on a white background. They were instructed to keep their eyes on the circle as it moved from the right to the left side of the screen twice per second for half a minute.
The strong-handed individuals who participated in this exercise had creativity scores just as high as their mixed-handed counterparts. However, the ambidextrous did not get an extra boost. This suggests the back-and-forth rapid eye movement stimulated the same sort of hemispheric interaction that occurs naturally in the mixed-handed people — but only to a limited degree. The eye-movement manipulation only affected two of the categories of creativity, albeit very important ones: originality and flexibility. Fluency, detail and appropriateness were apparently unaffected.
What's more, the effect was short-lived: seven to nine minutes for originality, one to three minutes for categorical distinctiveness. The brain, it seems, rapidly falls back into its familiar patterns of activity.
The researchers note that their test measures only "one aspect of creativity," which may or may not apply more widely. "Our findings may not apply to more unique populations who are characterized as highly creative," they caution, "nor can we conclude that (an eye-movement exercise) will turn an average individual into an artist, poet, scientist, philosopher, actor or sculptor."
Nevertheless, a follow-the-bouncing ball computer game that promises to turn your toddler into a Titian is probably inevitable.
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