The right brain can be perceived as visual and intuitive. According to neurosurgeon Richard Bergland, the right brain “thinks in patterns, or pictures,” while the left brain can be understood as rational and analytical, processing thoughts as numbers, letters, and words to form logical sequences. There is some research to indicate that left-handed people are more closely “wired” to specific areas of the right brain, which may indicate that they are more creative.
The artist Dr. Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979), has taught thousands of people to draw using a right-brain approach— including those who had no apparent skill and no experience. It seems that in the right-brain zone, anything is possible. So why do so many of us struggle to access this state of mind?
The creative “crunch”
We experience conflict when we’re trying to be creative because our sensible left brains are constantly engaged. This is the part of us that is assessing our creative output as it happens, and unless we can get completely into the right-brain zone, we’re constantly switching between left- and right-brain thinking. This switching creates a sense of conflict, doubt, and struggle.
The left brain can manifest as the voice that asks how practical your idea is; if it’s comparable with others’ ideas or output; and if it’s good enough. For example, writing fiction while constantly revising previous paragraphs lets the left brain in, constantly interrupting the right brain, which just wants to create, unhindered.
Here’s a musical example. When reading and playing music, we’re using the left brain—interpreting symbols, or notes, into meaningful sequences through sound. In improvized music, there are no notes, or very few, and musicians are free to play whatever they like. They must tune in completely to the feel of the sound and the sense of the other musicians, and then play something original. If they have to read music and improvize within the same piece, they have to switch modes instantly. Of course, at a professional level this comes with practice, but learning musicians struggle to shift between reading mode and improvising mode; they cannot instantly make the transition and maintain the same standard of playing in both modes. This illustrates the experience of left–right brain clash—the creative “crunch.”
You might have a similar experience when sitting in a business meeting going through figures. At the end of the meeting, someone asks for ideas for the theme of the summer party. There’s often an ominous silence—this is the sound of the left brain struggling to let go so the right brain can engage, and let ideas and inspiration come through.
If you’re “crunching,” you may feel:
- Mild anxiety
- Pressure to perform
- Your mind is a blank
- Poor concentration
Exercise: Do the shift
You can spend just a minute on this exercise, or turn it into a longer meditation, depending on how you feel and where you are. With practice, you will be able to do it very naturally, and use it whenever you want to shift gear and de-stress.
1. Turn your attention from your mind to your body—feel your feet on the floor, the weight of your body in your chair.
2. Move a little. Adjust your sitting position, stretch your neck. This helps release mental intensity and reconnects you with your senses and emotions.
3. Focus on your breathing. In meditation practice, this helps you feel more relaxed and centered. Be aware of your out-breath and try to extend it to a count of five or six, then pause before inhaling. Do this three or four times.
4. Conjure up a favorite image: trees swaying in the breeze, you on a sun lounger; recall a favorite song and sense the vibration of the music; or visualize a color that makes you feel good.
5. Imagine the right side of your brain filling with light, and a little door to your left brain closing. Stay with this image for a few moments.
For more tips and exercises to help your creativity flourish, check out How to be Creative by Liz Dean.