What Artists and Scientists have in Common

Someone asked me recently whether I thought it was strange, or at least uncommon, that I’ve developed so much of a creative side with my writing and photography since my days as a biomedical lab scientist. Hmm. I guess it is common knowledge that analytical scientists and creative artists are on opposite sides of a spectrum. But are they so different? Artists and scientists both have to be creative: they both have to develop original ideas and push frontiers. Is coming up with a novel research idea so different than creating something never seen before out of raw paint and paper? Is being able to tell an engaging story so different than being able to play out biological mechanisms in your head?

According to the Art Institute of Vancouver, being creative or artistic “doesn't mean you know how to draw or play an instrument. Being creative is a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world.”[1] When I took the Institute’s “Right brain vs. Left brain Creativity Test,” I got the following results:

“You are more right-brained than left-brained. The right side of your brain controls the left side of your body. In addition to being known as right-brained, you are also known as a creative thinker who uses feeling and intuition to gather information. You retain this information through the use of images and patterns. You are able to visualize the "whole" picture first, and then work backwards to put the pieces together to create the "whole" picture. Your thought process can appear quite illogical and meandering. The problem-solving techniques that you use involve free association, which is often very innovative and creative. The routes taken to arrive at your conclusions are completely opposite to what a left-brained person would be accustomed. You probably find it easy to express yourself using art, dance, or music. Some occupations usually held by a right-brained person are forest ranger, athlete, beautician, actor/actress, craftsman, and artist.”

Interesting! I’ve been an athlete, a biological scientist, an engineer, a writer, a social science researcher, a photographer. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a clear dichotomy.

Science has suggested that the Right brain vs. Left brain dichotomy really is a myth – you aren’t either right brained or left brained, analytical or creative.

“Brain scan experiments, however, show that the two halves of the brain are much more intricately linked than was originally thought, so problem-solving or creative tasks fire up activity in regions of both hemispheres of the brain, not just half.”[2]

The two hemispheres of the brain certainly do function differently – the right brain indeed may handle much of emotional processing, while the left brain is a center for language – but the dichotomy is not clear-but, and the two hemispheres are intricately linked[3]. They have “evolved to operate together.” [4]

Not only do scientists need to be analytical as well as creative to think of novel research ideas and then carry them out empirically, but they use both hemispheres of the brain just as much as the rest of us. That “aha!” moment in the lab when you realize that an additional step or chemical could make all the difference to your experiment? This experience may be largely right-brained and based on creativity and insight, according to a PLOS biology study[5]. Using FMRI (magnetic resonance imaging), researchers showed “increased activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus for insight [i.e. the “Aha!” experience] relative to noninsight solutions”:

“This right anterior temporal area is associated with making connections across distantly related information during comprehension. Although all problem solving relies on a largely shared cortical network, the sudden flash of insight occurs when solvers engage distinct neural and cognitive processes that allow them to see connections that previously eluded them.”

Creative geniuses in the sciences don’t seem so different now from artists and “right-brained” folk. So that idea that to be a scientist or doctor, you have to score high on “left-brain” tests for rational thinking and ability in math and science? Not so true. An un-creative scientist is not going to solve many problems before getting stuck on a problem that requires integration of many different ideas and creative solutions.

Neuropsychologist Associate Professor Michael Saling from the University Melbourne and Austin Health's Epilepsy Research Centre was recently quoted[6]:

"When someone says they are right or left-brain it's really just a metaphor for a cognitive style. Without a doubt the popular left and right division of the brain is an over-simplification. For example, research is showing that musical, artistic and intuitive thinking can't be thought of as strictly lateralised, or exclusively of the right hemisphere. […] Every single cognitive function has right hemisphere and left hemisphere components. To avoid competition between the two halves of the brain there is a division of labour between the left and the right.”

Mathematicians and artists may have more in common than traditionally thought. Don’t believe those analytical vs. creative, left brain vs. right brain tests… you have potential for both. Your brain hemispheres evolved to work together… use them both!