A Creativity Lesson from Albert Einstein

Think with your entire brain and you’ll be as creative as Albert Einstein.

That is perhaps an oversimplification of the latest scientific research on the brain of one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century. But as The Washington Post reported on Sunday, the developer of the theory of relativity did in fact physically embody whole-brain thinking. According to a new study published in the journal Brain, Einstein’s corpus colossum–the network of neural fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres–was in fact colossal.

One could look at this fact, drawn from direct study of Einstein’s brain as it was preserved after death, and say he was predestined for genius. We’ve debated here before at The Artist’s Road to what extent creative genius is inherent or learned. Some people are given an edge in life based on genes or physical differences, it’s true. But what scientists concluded after examining Einstein’s corpus colossum was that at his death it was in size comparable to that of a typical young man. “That might reflect the fact that Einstein continued to exercise his brain strenuously,” reporter Melissa Healy wrote, “forestalling much of the atrophy that comes with age.”

We’ve also debated here at The Artist’s Road the notion of left-brain vs. right-brain thinking. Artists love to boast of their right-brain minds, and sure enough, evidence of Einstein’s passion for violin playing–a right-brain activity–is visible in his brain scan in the form of a large knob on the surface of his primary motor cortex. But it is clear to me Einstein’s creativity stemmed from his ability to apply both left-brain and right-brain thinking, as I’ve advocated here on The Artist’s Road. I don’t write this simply to justify my love of mapping my creative projects. I write it because it is increasingly self-evident.

A few years ago I read Walter Isaacson’s remarkable biography of Albert Einstein. One thing that stuck with me was that Einstein hated doing math. Many scientists of his age solved problems by working mathematical problems until an answer emerged. His preferred approach to problem-solving began in a rather right-brain way, with big-picture thoughts about how it seemed to him the universe should work. Then, once he had worked out the abstract parameters, he would sit down and look to prove his theory with mathematics.

Two lessons here: 1) He had sufficient grasp of mathematics–a heavily left-brain activity–to conduct necessary proofs after his right-brain brainstorming. 2) His big-picture thinking surely was advanced because he had that foundational understanding of mathematics.

It seems a bit unreal to be blogging about creative thinking at a time when that appears to be so lacking among some of our elected leaders here in Washington, D.C. Sigh.

It seems a bit unreal to be blogging about creative thinking at a time when that appears to be so lacking among some of our elected leaders here in Washington, D.C. Sigh.

I do not aspire to solve the mysteries of the universe. I’ve worked on and around Washington, D.C.’s, Capitol Hill for a quarter-century and I still can’t fathom the mysteries of that dysfunctional branch of the U.S. government, so advancing relativity theory is not in the cards for me. But I am always hungry to learn from creative success stories. Here are some takeaways for me:

  1. Creativity truly flourishes when we incorporate both left-brain and right-brain thinking, but we can begin the process by favoring whichever comes easier to us.
  2. Regular and repeated use of whole-brain thinking will help us stay creative and alert as we age.

To what extent do you find your creative process incorporates both left-brain and right-brain thinking?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

32 Responses to “A Creativity Lesson from Albert Einstein”

  1. charlotterainsdixon Reply October 16, 2013 at 9:12 am

    Oh lord, I am so right-brained it’s crazy. Because I know this, though, I consciously seek ways to activate my left brain, even if it doesn’t come naturally. I would say my right brain drives my creative pursuits, but without my left brain, I’d never get any of them done.

    • Ah Charlotte, that last sentence is what I heard so, so often from the artists I interviewed on my road trip. Of course the artists who rose to my attention were ones who were getting things done and getting them out there, so it wasn’t surprising that they found ways to exercise whole-brain thinking.

    • Charlotte, right after commenting I noticed that Amy Luck (formerly Amy Buchheit) commented. She was one of the artists I interviewed on my road trip! And at the time she lived very close to you, in Vancouver, Washington.

  2. Apologies in advance, Patrick — this comment is kind of long!

    Great topic. It’s fascinating how our brains work, isn’t it? I love thinking about it (and as a furloughed USG employee, I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past two weeks!)

    In Meyers-Briggs terms, I’m an INFP. And on the Gallup Strengthsfinder, my top strength is Strategic. So my personal challenge always is to find a way to add structure and to balance out a natural tendency for a big picture, more free-flow approach. For the big picture creative side, I have spent a fair amount of time just thinking about the plot and what I want to have happen, the characters and what makes them tick, and so forth. Often this is truly free-form thinking.

    But to add that necessary structure to my WIP (a murder mystery), I do a lot of SJ things, such as making a checklist of the evidence that the MC uncovers (and in what sequence he finds it), wrote short bios of each major character to add consistency to their descriptions in the narrative, did up a list of my characters to keep their first names straight in the draft (NFs — not always so great on detail, remember?), and so forth. All that has been very helpful as I go through the first round of revisions to the rough draft.

    By the way, have you seen John Cleese’s presentation on creativity? (Here’s a link from my blog, if not — http://goughpubs.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/creativity-natural-gift-or-acquired-skill/) It touches on many of the things you’ve written about.

    Regards, Donna Gough (aka GoughPubs)

    • Hi Donna,

      Never apologize for the length of a comment! The more you write, the more my work is done by someone else!🙂

      I love that you’re learning from your MBTI in terms of your creative process, and consciously applying structure to your creative process. I’ve blogged a bit on David B. Goldstein’s new book Creative You, which addresses MBTI types and creativity.

      And yes, I’ve seen Cleese’s video; it is quite good. Thank you for sharing your post on it, I just tweeted it!

      Patrick

  3. This is a great topic! And it’s one that’s near and dear to my heart. I’m one of those weirdos whose right and left brains seem pretty well in-balance. You can see it even in my website pages; The Organized Writer is all left-brain and The Decorative Writer is all right. In fact the subtitle under the first is “Organization is just a framework for creativity.” I really believe that each way of thinking betters the other. I do think writers with a strong predilection toward one or the other can use their strengths and weaknesses to their advantage, but I also think working both sides makes us healthier people and better writers. I’ve been working creatively for a while though; maybe it’s time for me to bust out some old math problems!😉

    • Hi Annie! If you see Tanner’s comment (and my response) you’ll see you’re not a “weirdo”!🙂 Although it is amusing to have a blog divided like that. Perhaps you need a corpus colossum to unite your blog!

      I agree we need to exercise the side we don’t use as often. We can also evolve from where we think we are. For example my SAT scores had a much higher math than verbal, believe it or not, but twenty years later when I took the GMAT I was much higher on verbal; it reflected how I had been spending my time more than my capabilities or hard-wired way of thinking.

      I think you’ve seen my posts about how obsessively I chart my creative writing! We are very alike in that regard.

  4. Can we open this up for a bit of friendly debate or – at the very least – discussion?

    This notion of split brain, or right-brain/left-brain, or even front-brain/back-brain, or really any split at all is complete false.

    We have to stop perpetuating that creativity (or even creative activities) exist primarily in one part of the brain vs. the others.

    While there are *some* minute processes that seem to stem from certain regions of the brain, studies have shown time and time again that we all use our whole brain when doing any type of activity: from daydreaming and drawing, to mathematics and writing.

    The only solid neurological processes that are tied to any specific hemisphere of the brain involve motor functions (your right hemisphere primarily controlling the left hand/leg, and vice-versa), vision and language functions, etc.

    To quote the computational neuroscientist Paul King: “The left vs. right brain specialization is fairly minor with the exception of language lateralization. The reason it gets so much attention in the pop-psychology press is that the minor differences play into popular metaphors for the human condition: the logical ‘side’ vs. the creative ‘side’ of people’s personality. The truth is that the brain is not actually divided into separate logical and creative functions. The slight left-right differentiation that exists is interesting primarily because it is surprising that it should exist all.”

    Fairly recent studies (as recent as 2012) have indicated that there is no correlation to being more creative or more scientific and having one hemisphere of the brain be more active, enlarged, or otherwise dominant than the other.

    This is all fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things, but as a big fan of your writing and work Patrick, I think it’s up to writers like you and I to stop this myth from continuing to spread amongst creatives. It gives people excuses to complain that they “weren’t born creative” or that they “weren’t born to understand math.”

    Instead, can we rely on more accurate and recent scientific results and let our readers know that they’re already using their whole brain. Not even just 10-20% of it (as another wildly popular myth perpetuates). If they aren’t good at math, or creativity, or learning either of the two, the problem isn’t necessarily a physical one they were “simply born with.” At least, not as far as the little we are beginning to understand about the brain today.

    Again: this is simply for a healthy debate and, at the very least, discussing further or considering. I’m not seeking out a flame-war or arguing for the sake of yelling across the Internet.🙂

    Here’s some additional reading on the subject if you’re questioning this lengthy rant of mine:

    http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/neu-182371.pdf
    http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/neuromyth6.htm
    http://www.quora.com/Neuroscience-1/What-do-neuroscientists-think-about-Mythbusters-proving-we-only-use-about-30-35-of-our-brain/answer/Paul-King-2
    http://psychology.about.com/od/biopsychology/a/10-percent-of-brain-myth.htm
    http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v301/n1/full/scientificamerican0709-60.html

    Here’s even a recent study (2001) that attempts to refute additional research of a unified brain system (that fails to do so): http://cercor.oxfordjournals.org/content/11/10/954.short

    • Hi Tanner!

      All, Tanner is a true student of creativity and has studied and written a great deal on the subject. You can find his blog here: http://www.creativesomething.net/

      I fully agree that true creativity is whole brained in nature. As someone who comes to creativity with a career in communications, however, I think it is useful to remember that people tend to form by adulthood a sense of their perceived strengths and weaknesses, and they often break down along the typical “definitions” of left brain and right brain. Yes, we can harm ourselves when we tell ourselves we can’t do something. My wife as a child told herself she was uncoordinated, and finally as an adult she realized she was manifesting something that was false; she is just fine, and now likes to hike and dance, etc. But in order to reach people with a whole-brain thesis, we need to recognize people are thinking in terms of separation.

      Have you read David B. Goldstein’s Creative You? I have written a few posts on it; here’s one: https://artistsroad.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/what-is-your-creativity-type-from-the-newly-published-creative-you/ David and his co-author break down the sixteen MBTI personality types by creative approach. You’ll note one of the other commenters on this post immediately cited her MBTI. I have found that the Creative You descriptions of my type–INTJ–fit well. Can I be extroverted? Yes? Can I be more feeling than thinking? Yes. But I repeatedly start from a default position along INTJ, and some of those default positions lie more along the side of stereotypical “right-brain” thinking.

      Most artists I’ve interviewed or known over the years describe themselves the way Charlotte does here, as more right-brain than left-brain. In my current professional circle I work with a lot of scientists whose STEM education emphasizes their left-brain thinking, and they identify and act like a left-brain thinker. But they are also creative and demonstrate right-brain thinking as well.

      The bottom line is that you are right, you need to be whole-brained to maximize your creativity, but I feel it’s important to understand where people are in their own minds when communicating that message.

      FYI, I needed to approve this comment because you had so many links; that’s why there was a delay in posting it.

      Patrick

  5. Please visit my 2 most recent blog posts at The Creative Epiphany on WordPress, portions of which are excerpted from my book THE CREATIVE EPIPHANY – Gifted Minds, Grand Realizations by Jo Ann Brown-Scott
    I too am fascinated with the creative process….love reading your posts!

  6. Well . . . it depends on what series I am working on to be honest. But let me give you an example of my first series, which was a series of abstract paintings populated with seemingly random shapes (often hidden images held within, some easier to see than others), lined or filled with increasingly precise raised dots.

    The beginning of that process was very creative. Depending on the piece, I either started with shapes drawn on the page (such as “Sushi, Anyone?” http://www.amybuchheit.com/abstract) and then filled the page with loosely flowing line to form shapes, all the way back to the beginning of that project, where I did a “scribble drawing” to start, then went back and erased shapes out. As the series progressed, the application of pattern became an increasingly precise pattern of raised dots that I produced using a filbert brush held at a precise angle, after having mixed just the right amount of airbrush medium into the heavy-bodied acrylic paint for it to be smooth and hold a “bubble” in suspension, without running off the canvas. Not mathematical in its precision, but close.

    Examples of this balance can be found throughout my work of the last 14 years. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to elaborate. But you get the picture. 😉

    • Amy, thanks for taking the time to respond to the extent you did! It’s very helpful. I’m going to draw attention to this comment under Charlotte’s comment; you’ll see why in a minute.

  7. Lots of interesting points raised by many people on this subject. And while I appreciate your point of view, Tanner, I remain convinced that nothing in this universe will EVER make me good at maths. Well, except maybe a brain transplant😉

    My own experience, however, does lend some weight to the ‘whole brain thinking’ idea. Up until the age of about twenty-eight I was so ‘right-brained’ (to use the term in the context it’s meant) that it was almost silly. Then, when times got hard for me and my family I took a job with an avionics company as a software technician. It required me to study for a foundation diploma in software engineering at my local university – funded by the company – for a year before being given the job officially. It was the most left-brained thing I’d ever done in my life; I knew I was probably going to hate it but the money was good so I sucked it up and did it.

    I’ll be honest, in the four years I worked there after graduating from the course I never did enjoy working there; it felt like a parallel universe that I never really fitted into. But the things I learned and the new approaches I was forced to take to complete the projects I was given quite literally changed the way my brain worked. Permanently. I actually still use a lot of the techniques I was taught for working out tough programming problems (i.e. top-level design, mind maps, breaking down programs into smaller, stand-alone ‘functions’) to help me solve creative problems with my writing – because they work just as well for that purpose. And if you’d told me several years ago that I’d be the kind of person who tracks various aspects of her novel with Excel spreadsheets I’d have laughed in your face… but for my current w-i-p I have THREE, and they have been invaluable to me.

    I am still MONUMENTALLY rubbish at maths though. But it turns out that doesn’t matter, because here’s one little secret I learned about software engineering: you don’t HAVE to be good at maths, you only have to be good at getting the computer to do the maths for you. Bonus!

    • Wendy, you provide a great lesson here, or lessons, really: 1) We can with some effort nurture and grow the side of our brain that we haven’t exercised as much. 2) We can extract lessons from that even when we shift our balance back to our default side. 3) There’s merit to having others (computers in your case but it could be student assistants or employees, what have you) do the stuff you don’t like for you!

  8. Who’d have thought I shared something in common with Einstein: a not altogether love of math, but an understanding of its importance? I’m not sure how I work left-brained activities into my creativity, other than – with the current WIP – the fact that I am learning a lot about ethno-mathematics (which are central to my plot). This learning, inevitably, taxes my brain with all kinds of binary theory. So in some respects, I suppose it’s not so different from the freelance writing I have done in the sciences. The biological sciences are always easier for me to dissect and comprehend than are the engineering and mathematical sciences, but I find – after, for instance, writing about solar energy – that, while tired, I feel I truly have exercised parts of my brain that I’d haver rather left in slumber. Somehow, as exhausted as I am, though, there’s a sense of accomplishment. So maybe my brain knows the value of a good equal-sided workout!

    • Love the “workout” analogy! I think you’ve got some good insights re: the editing of science writing. I tend to think more broadly with left-brain thinking, however. It is closely associated with organization and structure, so the very work you do to organize your client work, and in many respects the writing and editing process itself–working on clarity and flow–are left-brain activities. No successful freelancer avoids their left brain.

      • Perhaps I am more balanced than I think, because I do love the organizational side of the job (and with fiction – I even enjoy thinking in “outline” form, getting characters lined up). Here’s to brain balance!

  9. An interesting insight into Einstein’s life. He was indeed the type to think about what would happen first. Even though he’s famous for relativity, what brought him out of obscurity was his explanation of the photoelectric effect, which proved that light was both a particle and wave. He solved the problem by performing ‘thought experiments’ in his head while he worked as a clerk. Indeed, through the process of just imagining what would happen and why, he explained a phenomenon that every other physicist in the scientific community actively avoided for fear of being asked to explain it.

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