Creativity and Challenge

New research from the University of Amsterdam* shows that when people encounter an obstacle, it causes them to stop using routine, automatic thought, and to step back and adopt a more global, big picture approach, to try to figure out a way around the obstacle. That might not be so surprising; but the researchers also found two related results that are really fascinating.

First, the mind’s shift to a big picture approach lingered even after the problem was done. Here’s the experiment: Participants were given a maze to solve, and for half of them, the most obvious path through the maze was blocked. After finishing the maze, both groups were given 10 Remote Associates Test (RAT) triplets to solve–a traditional measure of creative ability. The people who had the blocked maze solved, on average, 4.75 of the triplets; the people whose maze was not blocked solved only 2.83!

This study is consistent with my own interviews with artists and arts educators, who say that students learn much more effectively when the teacher introduces constraints, and designs tasks so that students will have difficulty, thus forcing them out of their usual way of thinking. 

The second finding is that the first finding only holds true for people who are “low in volatility,” and not for people who are “high in volatility.” High volatility people are “inclined to disengage prematurely from ongoing activities” whereas the low volatility people are more likely to stick with it and finish. So basically, you don’t get any benefit from the obstacle if you’re one of the high volatility people. If you’ve read this far in my blog post, I’m guessing you are low volatility!

*Marguc et al., 2011, Stepping back to see the big picture: When obstacles elicit global processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 5, pp. 883-901.

Left Hand Activity Increases Associative Performance

I have always been a skeptic of the claim that creativity is located in the right brain. This claim originated in the early 1970s, after neuroscientist Roger Sperry discovered that surgically severing the connection between the two brain hemispheres could cure extreme cases of epilepsy. The procedure, called a commisurotomy, indeed cured the epilepsy. The problem was that the two hemispheres could no longer communicate. In most everyday life situations, these patients behaved normally and no one could tell they had, essentially, two distinct brains in their skull. But Sperry came up with a series of clever experiments such that information would be presented only to one hemisphere (to the right or left visual field) and the patient asked to respond with only one hemisphere (just the right or the left hand). The results were complex but intriguing.

The popular media grabbed onto highly simplified interpretations of these findings; books like Robert Ornstein’s 1972 The Psychology of Consciousness and Betty Edwards’ 1979 Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain popularized the notion that creativity was located in the right brain. The only problem was that this was completely untrue, a radical misrepresentation of Sperry’s findings. Through the decades since, pretty much all neuroscientists agreed that creativity involved the entire brain, the left and right hemisphere working together, and the serious research focused on the specific roles of each hemisphere in the creative process.

In the last ten years or so, brain imaging studies using fMRI have resulted in a new wave of studies of what is known as “hemispheric specialization” or “localization.” The findings are mixed*, with some studies showing increased LH (left hemisphere) activation and some showing increased RH–although the majority of the studies come down on the side of RH. Keep in mind that in all of these studies, “increase activation” means approximately 3 percent more than baseline, and even less of a difference between the hemispheres…reinforcing the general truth that creativity involves the entire brain in concert. And “creativity” means different things, depending on the test being used, but almost never means real-world creative performance.

The latest study on this topic was published just last year**. The researchers put 40 people into three groups. Group 1 was told to squeeze a ball for 45 seconds with their left hand (thus using the RH); Group 2 was told to squeeze with the right hand (thus using the LH); and Group 3 didn’t squeeze a ball at all. Then, everyone was given a type of creativity test called the Remote Associates Test (RAT) which presents you with three words, and asks you to identify a fourth word that’s related to all three of them. They were given 25 of these triplets and 15 minutes to solve them.

The findings were pretty amazing:

Right hand squeeze: solved an average of about 8 of the 25

No squeeze: solved an average of about 10

Left hand squeeze: solved an average of about 12

Something as simple as increased muscular activity on the left side of your body, stimulating RH activity, can have the effect of enhancing associative performance! And activating the OTHER side of your body and thus the LH actually inhibits performance.

I’ll close with a caveat: Of course, creativity is not the same thing as doing well on the remote associates test. The bulk of the research tells us that creativity is not lateralized in either hemisphere. But associative ability is one cognitive ability that is implicated in real-world creative performance.

*Hemispheric specialization and creative thinking: A meta-analytic review of lateralization of creativity Brain & Cognition, Volume 72, issue 3 Pages 442-448. Konstantin M. Mihov, Markus Denzler, Jens Förster

**Abraham Goldstein, Ketty Revivo, Michal Kreitler, and Nili Metuki. Unilateral muscle contractions enhance creative thinkingPsychon Bull Rev 2010 17:895-899; doi:10.3758/PBR.17.6.895