Neural Correlates of Creativity: The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Assumption

What do the great historical inventors such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla have in common? While we may be tempted to define their extraordinary abilities as a reflection of their IQ, it may be more accurate to say that they were exceptional divergent thinkers. Divergent thinking is defined as “open ended thinking involving a large number of potential solutions and no correct answer” (Goldstein, 2011). This can be contrasted with convergent thinking, which involves finding a solution to a specific, defined problem that usually has a correct answer (Goldstein, 2011). While both forms of thinking are essential to human intelligence, divergent thinking, which is closely associated with creativity, is highly valued in many Westernized societies. However, one common assumption that many people make about creative people is that they possess a dominant right hemisphere (Eby, 2013). I remember a popular quiz shared on Facebook several years ago that supposedly measured how “left-brained” or “right-brained” you were based on a series of questions, and then suggested an occupation based on these results. The suggestions for left-brained people were logic and science-based, and the suggestions for right-brained people were oriented towards art, music, and other realms associated with creativity. Another example of this oversimplification can be seen in this fairly recent Mercedes-Benz ad: . One technique that may help dispel this common assumption is through neuroimaging research. In this post, I will examine the results of a recent meta-analysis of studies involving fMRI and creativity to show that the creative process cannot be boiled down hemispheric specificity.

Current research suggests that divergent thinking does not appear to have a specific neuroanatomical localization, partially because it is multidimensional process involving different cognitive domains (Boccia, Piccardi, Palermo, Nori, & Palmiero, 2015). Boccia et al. (2015) conducted a meta-analysis using an Activation Likelihood Estimation (ALE), which assessed the overlap in activated areas of the brain in each study and developed a probability distribution associated with the coordinates for each area. Their results showed that creativity that involves executive functions is strongly related to the activation of the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC). The activation of the DLPFC is specifically associated with effortful problem solving, monitoring, and focused attention, and may be linked to increased working memory load (Boccia, Piccardi, Palermo, Nori, & Palmiero, 2015). When assessing three different domains of creativity, the DLPFC was found to be consistently activated in all three, including the Musical domain, the Visual-spatial domain, and the Verbal domain.

Other mechanisms behind divergent thinking appear involve domain-specific activations. For example, verbal creativity was consistently associated with activation of the left interior frontal gyrus, while musical and visual-spatial creativity was associated with the right supplementary and the left premotor cortices (Boccia, Piccardi, Palermo, Nori, & Palmiero, 2015). In general, Boccia et al. (2015) showed that the creativity process seems to heavily involve three separate areas of the brain, including the aforementioned prefrontal cortex, and the posterior temporal, and the parietal areas. This has also been confirmed through studies with dementia patients, who experienced a progressive decline in artistic creativity and divergent thinking when these specific areas of the brain were damaged (Palmiero, Di Giacomo, & Passafiume, 2012). Furthermore, Boccia et al. (2015) showed that interaction between both hemispheres of the brain occurred during all three domains of creativity, suggesting once again that creativity is not lateralized in the right hemisphere.

While the neurological underpinnings of creativity are complex and warrant further depth than is covered in this post, one consistent finding is that many different areas of the brain are activated during divergent thinking, and the majority of them seem to involve inter-hemispheric interaction. Further research is needed on this subject, particularly involving people who possess extraordinary creative capabilities, such as the historical figures mentioned above. The question of why some people may be more creative and inclined towards divergent thinking has yet to be answered, but neuroimaging has allowed us to have a glimpse into this multifaceted process – one that does not appear to be solely dependent upon the right hemisphere.



Boccia, M., Piccardi, L., Palermo, L., Nori, R., & Palmiero, M. (2015, August). Where do bright ideas occur in our brain? Meta-analytic evidence from neuroimaging studies of domain-specific creativity. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1195), 1-12. doi:doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01195

Eby, D. (2013, September 6). Left Brain, Right Brain – Creativity And Innovation. Retrieved from PsychCentral:

Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Palmiero, M., Di Giacomo, D., & Passafiume, D. (2012). Creativity and dementia: a review. Cognitive Processes, 13(3), 193-209. doi:10.1007/s10339-012-0439-y.

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