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The Country of the Right Brain

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

How individuals and organizations inadvertently limit their creativity

By Malaika Cheney-Coker

“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

In the children’s book Alice in Wonderland, one of the many absurdities that the sensible young Alice experiences after falling down a rabbit hole into a fantastical world is a mad hatter at a tea party who reveals that they have tea all day because Time has punished him by eternally standing still at 6 PM (tea time), a mock turtle who is very sad, even though he “hasn’t got no sorrow” and a card queen who calls for the beheading of a grinning Cheshire cat even though he has no body to separate from his head. So famous is Alice in Wonderland and its successor Through the Looking Glass as story-long metaphors for illogical thinking that “falling down the rabbit hole” or “the looking glass world” are colloquialisms for absurd reasoning or backwards logic (e.g. running helps you remain stationary). The tremendous cultural, linguistic and artistic influence the books and their many literary, film and dramatic adaptations and critiques have exerted over the past 150 plus years make it impossible to dismiss them as mere children’s tales — in fact they have many implications for the adult world.

One such use is the likening of the looking glass world to the creative, non-rational, meaning-making part of the brain which in popular psychology is often referred to as the right side of the brain (Note: the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ brains are used here as shorthand and are not meant to correspond exactly to the actual functioning of the brain). This bundle of abilities is often marginalized or dismissed in the dominant discourses of most non-artistic disciplines and in our educational systems; instead, there is an over-dependence on so-called left brain thinking, which manifests in the elevation of rational, reductive, analytic thinking — the lifeblood of scientific disciplines. Even many approaches to innovation, which is an inherently creative process, heavily favor the scientific method with its emphasis on creating and testing hypotheses and iterating based on the results.

But while necessary for viability and technical excellence of design, scientific approaches have little to offer by way of the imaginative spark needed to engender a game-changing idea or the raw creative power needed to draw it out of near-nothingness. Not knowing how to regularly harness right-brain thinking limits individual creativity, and, on aggregate, can be an enormous barrier to the creativity and dynamism of an organization.

Much like the looking glass world, the right brain is a country unto itself with its own laws, norms and values. To thrive within it means developing cultural competency in them, the way one would in a strange land. Because it is concerned with intuitive and imaginative thinking and the process of making coherence out of chaos, the right brain draws heavily from the subconscious. The subconscious is what writer Robert Olen Butler has referred to as a compost heap of experiences, impressions and studied material, their mingling and decay providing the fertility from which new ideas arise. This place from which dreams also arise, is inherently irrational (explaining why dreams are so nonsensical). When we’re adjoined to “think out of the box,” “go with your gut,” “let it sit/percolate” these are all nods to the unpredictable, non-linear way in which that part of the brain works. It is a country with no roads, where the ability to fly is a necessity. It is imperative to see the rich contributions of this type of thinking as part of any professional discipline that portends to tackle complex problems. In fact, this “professional artistry” is also what organizational learning titan Donald Schon, of MIT calls for in his critique of “research-based theory and technique” being used inappropriately to address the “messy, confusing problems [that] defy technical solution (Educating the Reflective Practitioner, 1987).”

What would it take to integrate right-brain thinking into the organizational mainstream? Though more practical tools than already exist are needed (brainstorming exercises, mind-mapping, story, drawing are some popular ones and are expanding the ideation toolbox), these tools are used episodically and tend to exist on the fringes. A first step is understanding and thus demystifying the vital differences of the creative domain. Upon encountering a new culture where mealtime seems extraordinarily long and complicated, it would be helpful to understand the values of communion that underlie such rituals. Likewise, it is important to understand and respect that traveling to the outer space of the mind is welcome in the country of the right brain whereas problem-solution frames and other linear approaches are banned or at minimum, disfavored. This is borne out by the fact that many of the world’s most popular inventions (e.g. portable MP3 players), didn’t come about as solutions to problems, per se, but as “what ifs” that enabled leaps into previously unimagined territory.

A practical step that individuals and organizations can take to gaining cultural competence in the country of the right brain is to experiment with the much-popularized concept of “flow.” Also known as “getting in the zone,” flow is a state that can be experienced by virtually all professionals performing at a high level, but is particularly essential to musicians and other artists, and athletes. It has been described as an intense and often euphoric state of heightened creativity and focus during which more mundane activities of the brain appear to quiet down.

Flow states can be thought of as an entry into the country of the right brain, and with practice, can be attained regularly. What it takes to get into a flow state is highly individual and could range from meditation, being in a contest, walks in nature, intensive practice, whiteboarding, music or facilitated dialogue. Flow can be sought after by anyone — whether they regularly visit or not, all human beings have citizenship in the country of the right brain, it is not only the birthright of artists and inventors. While there do appear to be varying degrees of innate creative ability, anyone can increase their creativity.

It would be a false dichotomy to suggest that either right- or left-brain competencies should be favored. The science of the brain has established that successful execution of complex tasks depends on them working hand-in-hand. Successful artists attest that they need to acquire formidable amounts of technical craft-focused knowledge to effectively render their most inspired creations. The most groundbreaking scientists are highly creative, bringing to pass new discoveries not only by experimentation and analysis but intuitive leaps. The quality of ideas produced in a creative process can be fed by rigorous analytical study of the subject matter. And organizations that work in complex domains (such as social change) need rational, linear and science-based approaches much as they need to know how to access the creative wilderness and its treasures.

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