What Artists and Scientists have in Common

10 April 2013 by Paige Brown Jarreau, posted in Uncategorized

Someone asked me recently whether I thought it was strange, or at least uncommon, that I’ve developed so much of a creative side with my writing and photography since my days as a biomedical lab scientist. Hmm. I guess it is common knowledge that analytical scientists and creative artists are on opposite sides of a spectrum.

But are they so different? Artists and scientists both have to be creative: they both have to develop original ideas and push frontiers. Is coming up with a novel research idea so different than creating something never seen before out of raw paint and paper? Is being able to tell an engaging story so different than being able to play out biological mechanisms in your head?

Neurons. Wiki.

According to the Art Institute of Vancouver, being creative or artistic “doesn't mean you know how to draw or play an instrument. Being creative is a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world.”[1] When I took the Institute’s “Right brain vs. Left brain Creativity Test,” I got the following results:

“You are more right-brained than left-brained. The right side of your brain controls the left side of your body. In addition to being known as right-brained, you are also known as a creative thinker who uses feeling and intuition to gather information. You retain this information through the use of images and patterns. You are able to visualize the "whole" picture first, and then work backwards to put the pieces together to create the "whole" picture. Your thought process can appear quite illogical and meandering. The problem-solving techniques that you use involve free association, which is often very innovative and creative. The routes taken to arrive at your conclusions are completely opposite to what a left-brained person would be accustomed. You probably find it easy to express yourself using art, dance, or music. Some occupations usually held by a right-brained person are forest ranger, athlete, beautician, actor/actress, craftsman, and artist.”

Interesting! I’ve been an athlete, a biological scientist, an engineer, a writer, a social science researcher, a photographer. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a clear dichotomy.

Science has suggested that the Right brain vs. Left brain dichotomy really is a myth – you aren’t either right brained or left brained, analytical or creative.

“Brain scan experiments, however, show that the two halves of the brain are much more intricately linked than was originally thought, so problem-solving or creative tasks fire up activity in regions of both hemispheres of the brain, not just half.”[2]

The two hemispheres of the brain certainly do function differently – the right brain indeed may handle much of emotional processing, while the left brain is a center for language – but the dichotomy is not clear-but, and the two hemispheres are intricately linked[3]. They have “evolved to operate together.” [4]

Not only do scientists need to be analytical as well as creative to think of novel research ideas and then carry them out empirically, but they use both hemispheres of the brain just as much as the rest of us. That “aha!” moment in the lab when you realize that an additional step or chemical could make all the difference to your experiment? This experience may be largely right-brained and based on creativity and insight, according to a PLOS biology study[5]. Using FMRI (magnetic resonance imaging), researchers showed “increased activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus for insight [i.e. the “Aha!” experience] relative to noninsight solutions”:

“This right anterior temporal area is associated with making connections across distantly related information during comprehension. Although all problem solving relies on a largely shared cortical network, the sudden flash of insight occurs when solvers engage distinct neural and cognitive processes that allow them to see connections that previously eluded them.”

Creative geniuses in the sciences don’t seem so different now from artists and “right-brained” folk. So that idea that to be a scientist or doctor, you have to score high on “left-brain” tests for rational thinking and ability in math and science? Not so true. An un-creative scientist is not going to solve many problems before getting stuck on a problem that requires integration of many different ideas and creative solutions.

Neuropsychologist Associate Professor Michael Saling from the University Melbourne and Austin Health's Epilepsy Research Centre was recently quoted[6]:

"When someone says they are right or left-brain it's really just a metaphor for a cognitive style. Without a doubt the popular left and right division of the brain is an over-simplification. For example, research is showing that musical, artistic and intuitive thinking can't be thought of as strictly lateralised, or exclusively of the right hemisphere. […] Every single cognitive function has right hemisphere and left hemisphere components. To avoid competition between the two halves of the brain there is a division of labour between the left and the right.”

Mathematicians and artists may have more in common than traditionally thought. Don’t believe those analytical vs. creative, left brain vs. right brain tests… you have potential for both. Your brain hemispheres evolved to work together… use them both!

7 Responses to “What Artists and Scientists have in Common”

  1. Dave Reply | Permalink

    Some of the greatest artist in history were also great analytic thinkers (DaVinci).
    Likewise some of the greatest scientist also had artistic interests. I think we've invented these ideas about right-brainers vs. left-brainers with no middle ground because many good artist and scientist are sort of one-dimensional people. Now a days, being one-dimensional is almost necessary to be truly good at what you do. So we see all these examples of people who lean far to one side or the other, but there probably isn't as strong a biological basis for it as we think, and people probably don't use one side of their brain vastly more than the other, at least not in the way the right-brain vs left brain argument suggests.

  2. Paige Brown Jarreau Reply | Permalink

    Good point, Dave. So true, I suppose there is a lot of pressure today to be one-dimensional and expert in a particular area, and yet many jobs require us to the a master of all trades. And I believe that some research suggests that mathematical geniuses, for example, are not strongly one-sided in their cognitive styles at all, but rather derive their special abilities from greater integration across both hemispheres than other people!

  3. Christen Rune Stensvold Reply | Permalink

    Being able to continuously support your work by energy and creativity is vital whether it be science or art. As you say, it’s about pushing borders, innovation. I also believe that you can take things a long way, even if you’re not Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, or Mozart, if you’ve got perseverance and focus and constantly expose yourself to new ideas, data, etc.; both scientists and artists are curious people!

  4. Natalie Reply | Permalink

    Absolutely agree! Check out new magazine Lo/Rez [www.lorezmag.com/] for explorations of the innovations that emerge when art and science converge...

  5. ilona Reply | Permalink

    frankly, this is a tired subject. please let's not define personalities or qualities by brain hemispheres, or chosen professions of the moment. creative and analytical people thrive in a lot of different professions; they are often versatile and have a lot of interests. i have been both an artist and scientist for most of my life. the truth is that the venn diagram of science and art has more overlap than not. sure, there are stereotypes in each category, represented by a single view on a person. and we perpetuate these stereotypes by setting up discussions about dichotomies. the future is not about dichotomies, it's about networks. let's reframe this, move forward, and not confuse neuroscience and psychology.

  6. Stephanie Swift Reply | Permalink

    I totally agree: scientists are artists (and vice versa). I sometimes marvel at the simplicities of art in science. It can just be noticing how different people load up their 8 tubes in centrifuge buckets - all around the outside, in an arrow shape, in two neat rows - but it introduces a fleeting flicker of artistry into my day, and makes me very happy to boot.

  7. Ophelia Reply | Permalink

    All this discussion about brains has got me thinking that perhaps something may have been overlooked in this article. The brain is not the only organ in our anatomy that has neurons and thus intelligence. If we were to only consider the heart as well, and the potential connection between the two, we could say that scientists are like the brain, artists like the heart, and what makes them unique and the same somewhere in between.

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