Thursday, March 22, 2012

Our Brains and the Creative Process

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!
-Dr. Seuss

My dad was one of my best friends. He was a teacher at heart and a very effective one at that. He taught me so much, everything from how to read to how to set a goal and work hard until you achieve it. During my senior year of high school, Dad—healthy, marathon-running Dad—was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor on the left side of his brain. When he came out of surgery he could hardly speak and he had lost the right side of his field of vision. Each day when I arrived home from school I would find Dad in his office waiting for me to help him read his scriptures. He once commented on how ironic it was: now I was teaching him something that he initially taught me.

Those days were heartbreaking, yet I cherish those momentous times I spent side-by-side with Dad as he relearned language by reading his scriptures (Jacob 5!). In reality, Dad was really still teaching me. Here was a man half blind and unable to read. Yet he never gave up. He gave it his all until the very end.

Dad’s experience made me think a lot about the brain and how it works. His egg-sized tumor was in the left side of his brain and thus, his ability to speak and process words was hindered.

I once read (and I wish I had saved the article!) that one of the best ways to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease is to engage in activities that employ both sides of your brain.

“Crossword puzzles!” we all shout out. Yes. But right up with crossword puzzles on the list of brain-stimulating activities is creative writing. (woohoo!)

Disclaimer: I am no neuroscientist, but here's what I found on the web:

The left brain is linear. It is in charge of verbal, logical and analytical thinking. It excels in categorizing, speech, reading, writing and arithmetic. It places things in order.

The right brain, on the other hand, processes ideas rapidly and in a nonlinear pattern. It excels in visual, spatial and intuitive information. It explores possibilities and creates.

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Writers take a piece of paper and a bunch of symbols and bring something to life: a story! Creative writing really is a tasking hobby, employing a heavy dose of right-brain free and creative exploring as well as left-brain organization and language skills to put those ideas on paper. Writers take a flat sheet of paper and bring people, places, and even entire worlds to life within a reader’s mind.

In an article on USA Today, neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen speaks about the creative process in our brains:

“Research suggests that creative people often slip into a zone in which ideas and thoughts come up freely in a disorganized way. During that state, a part of the brain known as the association cortex becomes very active. That brain region is known to be able to link up ideas or thoughts in potentially novel ways.”

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Ever heard the writing advice, “write now, edit later”? This is why. When we pull the left side of our brains into the process of exploring an idea and putting it down on paper (grammar and organization), we can lose sight of the creative flow that the right side of our brains is engaging in. (Still, I have a habbit of editing everything to death before moving on!)

Andreasen also says, “Gifted people in the arts or science tend to enjoy adventure, and they often like to explore new places or ideas. They don't like being hemmed in by rules or convention and often look at problems from a different angle. They also tend to have a high tolerance for situations defined by shades of gray. They often have to move doggedly ahead on a project — even when the outside world rejects their art or new ideas.”

I think we need both sides of our brains to create something beautiful, and understanding how the brain works can only help us improve our creative processes.

This video is a little long, and some parts are a bit strange, but it’s worth a watch. Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor had the rare opportunity of studying her own brain function during a stroke. Here she shares her experience:

Check out these Fun Facts About Our Brains and leave any thoughts you have to share in the comments. Thanks for stopping by!

-While language is controlled by the left side of our brains, the right side of the brain deals with ‘emotionally potent language’ - or in other words, swearing.

-Thinking positive might actually keep the doctor away. Studies show that 50-70% of visits to the doctor for physical ailments can be traced to psychological reasons.

-Eat healthy foods, for your body and your brain. A study of one million New York students showed that those who ate lunches without additives and preservatives performed 14% better on IQ tests. That said, our brains are the fattiest organs in our bodies!

-Memories triggered by scent (like cologne and perfume) have a stronger emotional connection, and therefore appear more intense than other memory triggers.

-Keep exercising your brain, because mental activity stimulates the creation of new neurons throughout your whole life. Click here for information on how to keep your brain sharp.


  1. I'm sorry about your father. *hugs* I suddenly feel so much more appreciative of mine.

    I feel so much better about wasting time writing stories no one will read now! Thanks.

    1. Kamille, I'm glad you feel better about "wasting time" writing :) Thanks for commenting!

  2. Lo! I loved this post. I was impressed with your openness about your dad and how you tied it in so seamlessly with the information you were trying to present. It was clever and made the information meaningful. I am so proud of you and all the good work you are doing! I miss you!

    1. Thank you, Em! You were such a great best friend to me during that time when my dad was sick. I miss you too!!

  3. Great post Lo. It explains a lot; in particular why I write bits form a story in a very random and jumbled way and then have to rearrange them, also why I loose the thread every time I stop to perfect the bit I have just written. You would think this would have been obvious to me as I studdied Psychology at University!

    I lost my Father to a brain tumour when I was 8 and it does give one a whole new perspective on things. They are always with us ;-)

    1. Joe, I can't believe your dad passed away of a brain tumor as well. If you don't mind me asking, what kind of a tumor was it? I am so sorry for your loss!

    2. I'm really not sure, consequence of being young and I never really asked my Mum. I just remember the trips to the hospital, the treatments and slowly watching him fade from my Dad to someone who didn't even know who we were.

      There are times when I miss him dearly but mostly I am thankful for all the things that may not of happened if he hadn't been sick. We had to move into a bungalow to make it easier with the mobility issues he faced and a month later my future husbands family moved in across the street. The rest as they say is history. Things happen for a reason I guess.

  4. Thanks for sharing about your dad. What an amazing lady you are. My dad has poor health and we've always been close, so this post really touched me.

    Would you mind emailing me - camicheckettsatyahoodotcom. I have a question for you and can't find your email.

    1. Cami, thanks for commenting! An email is coming your way.