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Debunking Myths About Creativity and the Brain

Our brains “get” poetry, whether we realize it or not. Also, a strong connection between the two hemispheres fuels imagination.

By Tom Jacobs


A pickled brain. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Two widely held myths about creativity and the brain — that the right hemisphere is the exclusive font of creative thought, and poetry is something only an elite few have the capacity to appreciate — are strongly challenged by newly published research.

One study suggests the brain may be hard-wired to respond to verse, while another reports creativity is associated not so much with one particular hemisphere, but rather with robust connections between the two.

The latter idea has been circulating since the 1990s, but the new study, published in the journal Bayesian Analysis, offers further evidence. It’s based on brain-scan research conducted by University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung, who measured neural activity in a group of college-age volunteers.

Participants took a series of creativity tests, including the classic in which they were asked to come up with new uses for everyday objects. They also reported their achievements in the arts, science, and other realms where creativity is prized. Based on all of the above, they were assigned composite creativity scores.

David Dunson of Duke University and Daniele Durante of the University of Padova analyzed the brain activity recorded on the scans, and found highly creative people (those whose scores were in the top 15 percent) had significantly more connections between the right and left hemispheres than those in the bottom 15 percent.

“Highly creative individuals display a higher propensity to form inter-hemispheric connections,” Dunson and Durante write.

While it’s not clear if that’s a cause or result of imaginative thinking, it raises the possibility of identifying people with high creative potential early in life. “Maybe by scanning a person’s brain, we could tell what they’re likely to be good at,” Dunson said in announcing the results.

If that’s a little too passive for your taste, note that earlier research has found heightened connectivity between hemispheres among young musicians — especially those who started playing an instrument by the age of seven. There are brain benefits to mastering those tricky rhythms.

And speaking of rhythm, another new study suggests our brains respond to poetry whether or not we are consciously aware of it. A research team led by Bangor University psychologist Awel Vaughan-Evans reports “readers with no particular knowledge of a traditional form of Welsh poetry unconsciously distinguish phrases conforming to its complex construction rules from those that violate them.”

“We studied the brain response of native speakers of Welsh as they read meaningful sentences ending in a word that either complied with strict poetic construction rules (or did not),” the researchers write in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. “As expected, our inexperienced participants did not explicitly distinguish between sentences that conformed to the poetic rules from those that violated them.”

“However, in the case of orthodox sentences, the critical word elicited a distinctive brain response,” they add. This suggests that, despite having no expertise of this particular form of writing, the participants “implicitly detected poetic harmony.”

“Before we even consider literal meaning,” Vaughan-Evans and her colleagues conclude, “the musical properties of poetry instinctively speak to the human mind in ways that escape consciousness.”

Perhaps they even stimulate both sides of the brain.