Never mind your right brain, it’s your unconscious that needs letting loose

The old left brain/right brain chestnut keeps on popping up, especially in reference to creativity. Dead but it won’t lie down. It comes from some very old studies on people with severe epilepsy whose brain hemispheres were surgically separated to prevent seizures swamping the whole cortex, plus the observation that motor functions are generally right side dominant (governed by the left motor cortex), and that language tends to be located in the left temporal lobe. Early studies seemed to support a view that the left brain is logical, ordered, and language related while the right is more spatial and image-led. But that was without knowledge of what the rest of the brain is doing (and let’s scotch that ‘only use 10% of it’ myth – we use the lot) and this is something neuroscience is much clearer about now.

I’m going to point you to a blog post of mine from 2013 where you’ll find a link to an article by Christian Jarrett who knows his stuff and doesn’t wrap it up in blather. I’ll be here when you get back.



So – if not left/right, then what? Conscious/unconscious, that’s what. There’s increasing evidence from detailed studies, including people with neurological disorders, that the key area involved in logic and sequencing is the frontal part of the brain, that bit behind your eyebrows. It’s the most recent development, it helps us plan and order things, catalogue, inhibit inappropriate behaviours, enable socialised behaviours, and it’ll be no surprise to any parent to find adolescents have to go through most of their young lives before it kicks in. While a lot of what it does is not immediately obvious to us while it’s doing it, it’s what you might call close to the surface whereas a great deal of our memories and their associated emotions are neurologically buried down in the subcortical parts of the brain and we’re less aware of their rumblings.

But that unconscious is working away the whole time. Think of that sentence and how you get to the end of it with all the right sorts of words in the right sort of order without having to plan it out beforehand. How does that happen? The answer seems to be a combination of a kind of superficial conveyor belt the travelling across a massive bubbling pond of mystery. It’s the mind-to-mouth process that carries words without dropping them, and what puts them there is the back-end staff in the pond below. The complexity of the brain is such that it seems capable of predicting what’s required without any conscious intervention and throws relevant or best-guess words up onto the conveyor belt. Sometimes it gets the wrong one and sometimes it can’t find one at all. But you know what? It quite often slings that word up into your conscious mind when you’re doing something totally banal, like washing up.

And therein lies the possible mechanism of creativity. Letting the unconscious loose to throw up more and different ideas from its bubbling subterranean tank by widening the gateway. If you think of that gateway as being like a piece of gauze, it’s obvious that the narrower the web and the more tightly patterned it is, the fewer items will get through and the less unique these will be. But if you can open that gauze up, make the gaps bigger and less structured, then more, bigger, and less ordinary ideas will fly out into consciousness.

Of course that depends on having something in there in the first place so input is important – reading, looking, observing, being, hearing, eating, drinking, finding novelty and poking around in it – that’s the all-you-can-eat buffet of creativity. It forces the brain to make more and novel connections from one part of itself to another, and the more of these there are, the less ordinary the solutions it will throw up.

That’s important because young brains have large numbers of quite random connections and these are gradually pruned out to focus on the ones most relevant to daily functioning, which means as adults we can become accustomed to relying on quite a limited number of routine cognitive pathways [see ‘desire pathways’ in Tom Hulme’s TED Talk below]. Exposure to novelty grows synaptic contact and gives the brain new possibilities when a solution is required, so ‘thinking outside the box’ isn’t as corny as it sounds as long as there isn’t a vacuum out there!

The value of ideas proposed by right brain enthusiasts probably arises from the novelty and experimentation aspect of the tasks rather than the neurological underpinnings claimed for them. But a critical gap in this way of thinking is the importance of letting the unconscious loose on expanded novelty and experiences and then allowing it space to drop that novelty into the creative conversation.

One of my writing tutors used to talk about ‘brooding’ her stories; letting her initial ideas evolve under the radar while she did mundane things such as cooking, washing up, walking, gardening – all activities that require little active thought [see Bored and Brilliant below]. I realised that this is the same process I call composting whereby, in my imagination, front-of-mind concrete information gradually breaks down into its organic components to become the essence of itself rather than the literal record.

And that too is a psychological process. Try reading a short passage in a book then recalling it immediately and again the next day. Chances are your first recall will be a near-literal repetition of a portion of that passage, while the second will lean more towards what it’s about and probably have fewer omissions. That’s what brooding and composting are doing – distilling and deconstructing the literality to reveal the core of what matters about the material – and it’s where the unconscious finds ideas to link to other ideas and to push up into conscious thinking while the rest of your brain is on automatic.

So, what to take away?

  • Feed your mind by doing, seeing, hearing, reading, tasting, and experiencing new things
  • Give your brain cognitive down time and …
  • Make friends with your default mode network.
  • Do things like blind contour or non-dominant hand drawing but think of these as ways of recruiting all the brain’s resources to the task rather than just one part of it. [Actually, better not to think about it at all!]
  • Don’t learn the words, learn the meaning.


TED talks:

Bored and Brilliant – Mamoush Zomorodi. 2017. I love this – not only does it talk about the positive effect of boredom but it mentions my new brain-mate, the Default Mode Network.

Doodlers, unite! – Sunni Brown 2011. Slightly tangential but it brings together in a very short presentation the impact of doodling as a free-wheeling activity that improves focus by alleviating the pressure of focusing.

Why some of us don’t have one true calling – Emilie Wapnick 2015. For me, relevance kicks in at about seven minutes. “Creativity happens at the intersections” [between areas of knowledge and interest].

What can we learn from shortcuts? – Tom Hulme 2016. This one is about building and environmental design but the ‘desire path’, the physical short cut people prefer to any designer-provided route, is a perfect analogy for the well-trodden connections in a brain that hasn’t really experienced anything new. Creativity requires the road less travelled:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, 1874-1963. Via The Poetry Foundation accessed 28/01/19

The surprising habits of original thinkers – Adam Grant 2016. Without mentioning it once, this TEDtalk exemplifies the role of unconscious processing in reference to procrastination. Grant talks about pre-crastinators who get things done ahead of time (and aren’t very creative), excessive procrastinators who rarely get the job done, and Goldilocks [my blog, my term!] procrastinators whose ‘down time’ seems to incubate and enable originality. 




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