Support Provided ByLearn More
Body + BrainBody & Brain

Giving Creativity a Hand

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next

Scorn and superstition have plagued left-handed people for centuries. In some parts of Scotland, it’s

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

considered a bad omen to encounter a “corrie-fisted” (left-handed) person at the start of a long journey. And the Meru people of Kenya believed that their religious leader’s left hand had unspeakable powers.

Support Provided ByLearn More

Maria Konnikova wrote for Elements in The New Yorker yesterday about the historically unflattering picture of left-handedness. She leads with criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who in 1903 asserted that left-handers were more than three times as prevalent in criminal communities than in “normal” populations. Prejudice of this and other kinds abated only in the last two decades, when science proved that left-handness does not correspond to a laundry list of mental and physical ailments, as previously thought. In fact, left-handers might be better off cognitively, according to a recent study. Konnikova writes:

This spring, a group of psychiatrists from the University of Athens invited a hundred university students and graduates—half left-handed and half right—to complete two tests of cognitive ability. In the Trail Making Test, participants had to find a path through a batch of circles as quickly as possible. In the hard version of the test, the circles contain numbers and letters, and participants must move in ascending order while alternating between the two as fast as possible. In the second test, Letter-Number Sequencing, participants hear a group of numbers and letters and must then repeat the whole group, but with numbers in ascending order and letters organized alphabetically. Lefties performed better on both the complex version of the T.M.T.—demonstrating faster and more accurate spatial skills, along with strong executive control and mental flexibility—and on the L.N.S., demonstrating enhanced working memory. And the more intensely they preferred their left hand for tasks, the stronger the effect.

These skills relate to a specific kind of creativity called “divergent thinking,” or—as Konnikova puts it—”the ability to generate new ideas from a single principle quickly and effectively.”

Using your non-dominant hand can boost creativity.

Such cognitive flexibility might stem from a more functional flexibility. In other words, your first-grade art teacher might have done you a favor by forcing you to use that right-handed pair of scissors:

In a 2013 review of research into handedness and cognition, a group of psychologists found that the main predictor of cognitive performance wasn’t whether an individual was left-handed or right-handed, but rather how strongly they preferred one hand over another. Strongly handed individuals, both right and left, were at a slight disadvantage compared to those who occupied the middle ground—both the ambidextrous and the left-handed who, through years of practice, had been forced to develop their non-dominant right hand. In those less clear-cut cases, the brain’s hemispheres interacted more and overall performance improved, indicating there may be something to left-handed brains being pushed in a way that a right-handed one never is.

Not surprisingly, then, a handful of scientists have shown that we recruit structures from both sides of the brain when we’re being creative. Here’s Scott Barry Kaufman writing for Beautiful Minds at Scientific American :

In a recent large review , Rex Jung and colleagues provide a “first approximation” regarding how creative cognition might map on to the human brain. Their review suggests that when you want to loosen your associations, allow your mind to roam free, imagine new possibilities, and silence the inner critic, it’s good to reduce activation of the Attentional Control Network (a bit, but not completely) and increase activation of the Imagination and Attentional Flexibility Networks. Indeed, recent research on jazz musicians and rappers engaging in creative improvisation suggests that’s precisely what is happening in the brain while in a flow state .

Read Kaufman’s post for more information on these networks, and check out our brain interactive to learn more.

Photo by mstofan/Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA)

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.