That a person is either left-brained or right-brained is one of the neuromyths that pervade popular imagination. While left-brainers are believed to be logical with a facility for verbal and mathematical reasoning, right-brainers are considered to be creative, artistic and musical. Though the left and right hemispheres subserve different functions, the two sides of the brain work in an integrated manner. Further, the idea that creativity is limited to certain fields or disciplines — typically the arts — couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, many creators find disciplinary boundaries restraining.
Mathematicians, biologists, physicists, economists and neuroscientists can be just as creative as painters, poets and pianists. Any discipline or field of study benefits from a creative imagination. Acclaimed educationist, Howard Gardner, writes in Creating Minds that a “creator forges a new system of meaning in a distinctive domain.” Just as he pluralised the construct of intelligence to include eight intelligences, Gardner argues that creativity also manifests in multiple domains.
In her insightful book, Re-imagining Mathematics, mathematician and educator Ashna Sen argues that Mathscan be made much more re-invigorating and natural if students are led to discover its essence by observing the world around them. For, in fact, Maths resides all around us — in nature, art and architecture. The whorls of petals, dendritic tree branches, snowflakes, the course of a river and birdsong harbour many mathematical insights like Fibonacci numbers, fractals, pi and harmonic series.
While Art and Maths are “seemingly distinct”, Sen argues that they are both “highly creative and abstract” and deal with the same constructs such as “shapes, symmetry, measurement and proportion.” More poignantly, both mathematicians and artists seek beauty. Sen also believes that allocating students as ‘science type’ or ‘arts type’ is “ill-informed and never useful” as distinct fields, like Art and Maths, have much in common if we bother to dig beneath artificially imposed boundaries. Many creators echo Sen’s sentiment that disciplinary boundaries themselves are often misleading or limiting.
For example, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan obtained his doctorate in Physics before moving to Biology, and ultimately won a Nobel prize in Chemistry. In an interview in The Hindu, Ramakrishnan admits that his training as a physicist definitely aided his work as a biologist as he was able to use “biophysical techniques like crystallography” to uncover the structure of ribosomes. When asked to comment on the fact that the Nobel prize in Chemistry is increasingly being given to biologists, the scientist’s response indicates how fields meld. As “biological phenomena involve molecules”, this leads to learning about their inherent chemistry. Ramakrishnan’s creativity lay in using the tools of one discipline to answer questions in another.
Another luminary who transcended disciplinary boundaries to win a Nobel is the cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman. In a blog post of the American Psychological Association, Deborah Smith writes that Kahneman applied “psychological insights to economic theory,” thereby bridging the two fields. Traditionally, economists believed that humans make “rational decisions based on self-interest.” Kahenman upended this assumption by demonstrating that people often make complex decisions, not through careful analysis, but by heuristics. He also alerted economists to factors like “fairness, past events and aversion to loss” that they didn’t typically take into account.
In his much-watched TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?, educationist Sir Ken Robinson argued that creativity needs to be accorded the “same status” as literacy in education. As authors Tom Kelley and David Kelley emphasise in their book, Creative Confidence, “we are all creative.” As innovation stems from our belief in our “creative capacity,” we need to curb self-limiting falsehoods like only certain people or disciplines are creative. Whatever field you are pursuing, know that you can approach it creatively by seeking unusual connections or unique solutions.
The writer blogs at www.arunasankaranaryanan.com and is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.