Friday, March 18, 2011

Op/Ed: Being Left-Brained and Creative

Hey all, and welcome back to my Op/Ed column! This is a friendly little space where readers can respond with alternate views to posts I've written. I'm very happy to introduce Caroline, who has a unique take on the right brain/left brain dichotomy.

First of all, many thanks to Gertie for letting me join the conversation! I'm a long-time reader of the blog, so I am delighted to share my thoughts on the idea of left/right brain approaches and

Though my education was in the humanities, I have always considered myself more left-brained than right-brained. Both statistics and geometry fascinated me in school and I soon grew to appreciate geometry more as I delved deeply into knitting and sewing. I saw the structures and mathematical basis for socks, for example, in the excellent book Simple Socks, Plain and Fancy, as a framework for
creative projects.

Some crafting people have the talent of looking at a picture of a finished project, finding inspiration, and improvising their way to a similar object. They don't rely on someone else's clear, detailed directions to tell them how to make it. I have no such luck! While thinking about Gertie's post, I realized that 90% of the projects I decided to wing (instead of following a pattern) ended up either unfinished or taken apart. Personally, I prefer to let someone else do the initial design legwork, whether it's the pattern writing team at Vogue or an indie designer I've found on Ravelry. I may not be working from scratch or my very own brilliant idea, but I still have creative leeway in choosing colors, materials, and sometimes deviating in a small way from the directions. Even as I see my own left-brain-leaning approaches -- basing artistic decisions on established, analytical constructs and thoroughly reviewed data -- I am unconvinced that being left-brained makes me inevitably less creative or even that left/right tendencies have to be either/or. Still, I do wonder whether others consider relying on someone else's designs to be less impressive than designing projects out of pure brainstorming.

Essentially, I take joy in the architecture that underpins the design and supports the more nebulous creative aspect of handicrafts. I'd love to hear more thoughts from folks who consider themselves left-brained or who are somewhat disinclined to deviate too far from instructions. Can or should we draw value assumptions on following directions versus venturing into uncharted crafting territory?

A resident of Atlanta, Caroline enjoys Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reading too many books, and knitting Aran sweaters during the summer. You can follow her on Twitter and her blog.


  1. I'd agree, I'm most definitely left brained, always had a leaning towards science rather than art and have always wanted to be more creative but find it very difficult to start something with no instruction. That's why I find sewing a brilliant method of being creative, there are rules and basics that have to be followed but there are creative decisions that can be made. This allows the lefty part of my brain to be satisfied (following rules, conforming to standards and methods) whilst encouraging the righty side to come up with the more creative aspects (colour, embellishments, flair) and hopefully I can come up with a complete experience. I'm very aware that the right side isn't very confident about her decisions and I need to listen to her a bit more and embrace the decisions she makes as they have value. I find baking is a similar process as there are rules to follow (if you want your cake to rise!) but there are freedoms that can be taken. A friend of mine does fabulous crochet work and she likes to just freestyle and come up with a woollen piece of art but nothing scares my lefty brain more than no rules! So in summary - sewing allows me to be creative within the confines of the rules, methods and techniques of sewing, therefore sewing is the best!!

  2. Nice post I think everyone has been at this point with their craft. But are you sure your own designs don't work for lack of creativity or lack of analysis? Is the suggestion really that creative people don't have to work to make things? I don't knit but I can't believe there are many people who can have a vision of a sock and just let there fingers fly unencumbered with wearable results. I suspect you could make your design work with more analysis and more trial and error it's just a longer process than picking up a pattern. If the suggestion is that creativity is a magic wand, then maybe it's the creative people who should take offense.

  3. Since I'm currently teaching a class with 100 undergraduate students, I can safely say that having the ability to accurately and completely follow directions is a talent and not something to be sneezed at. I myself am a professional scientist but enjoy knitting and playing the flute and have just begun to delve into sewing. I also like baking. Apparently, I like things that give clear directions but allow me to put my own spin on things. I may not be a knitwear designer, but I don't think this makes me less creative than other people. In fact, I feel more creative than lots of people that I know because they can't even imagine teaching themselves new skills like sewing or knitting, so they never even bother to try.

  4. I think it's fair to point out, too, that the more you do something, the less work it takes to create something similar.

    I'm not much of a knitter. I couldn't make an original sock design fly from my brain to the needles and be successful. But somebody who had a lot of experience knitting socks could probably do it, or could at least me much more nearly successful than I would be because s/he would have a lot more experience and better skills and would already have a rough idea of what would or would not work. I wouldn't. It doesn't mean that I'm not creative enough to do it, it just means I don't yet have the background for it.

  5. I think this is a really interesting topic and one that I have given a lot of thought to. I have always had other people classify me as "completely right brain" - and perhaps its my right brained-ness speaking - but I always found this intense division of "left" or "right" to be really limiting (as I find most categorization) and always felt that the "left brained/right brained" theory was definitely something that a self-proclaimed left brainer had come up with! If a "right brained" person had seen the same test results they most likely would have concluded that there are a myriad of possibilities and grey areas. Although I suppose - stereotypically - as a home sewer I looked at one set of pattern directions and said "oh I get it" and discarded them. This of course led to a long and backwards journey to learning the basics of sewing - but hey, thats just how I do it. Not to get too long winded (ha! to late!) but I also teach a college class on Art for non art majors and have found that most people use the "left brained" theory as a cop-out for stretching their conceptual skills. This is completely my opinion - but I feel that, as most of these comments confirm, that non of us are left brained OR right brained, but that we all exercise the talents attributed with each side in a variety of complex ways, and that its extremely healthy to stretch your right brain legs and your left brain legs. I think sewing - and frankly all art - employ both.

  6. I started writing this long comment describing my crafting/creative journey though life (blah, blah, blah), but then I realized that, for me at least, it all came down to this:

    It's not so much being more left- than right-brained, it's that the left's need for order and perfection is more powerful than the right's confidence in its creation. The left-brain is a dirty, rotten psychological bully!

    This is the battle between my two cranial hemispheres and it's something I try to work on every day. My mantra is "There are NO mistakes, only experience."

  7. I'm with both LittleBlackCar and Sallie Forrer. Few people live entirely on one side of the binary right/left brain, and no matter what your brain inclination, you have to learn actual technical skills in order to exercise it. That's the difference between imagination and creation, right?

    I think there's a perception that "creative" comes with a lot of inseparable baggage (being flighty, bad at math, spontaneous, etc.), but there are actually a huge variety of approaches.
    "Making stuff," no matter how closely you follow the instructions, requires a level of "creative" that just doesn't occur when you walk into the mall and choose the best option that presents itself.

    And while I'm soapboxing, :) I've always had a problem with the idea that "creative" means "without rules". "Creative" activities are limited by the use of the creation, the technical limitations of materials, process and the artist, culture, and all kinds of other things. In art school, assignments are often given in the form of a "problem". Writers work from writing prompts. Rules aren't the enemy of "creation", and neither is breaking a few!

  8. I am a scientist, and I sew. I love to quilt, it lets me use a pattern very loosely and be as creative as I please. I am good at math and chemistry. I have always felt that I straddled the line between science and art. I would be lost with out both!

  9. I love the methods I get to discover, the grace that comes with efficiency, the feeling of success when a project turns out smoothly just like I'd hoped. All my life I have been and will be working on being okay with the frustration I feel when a project doesn't end up like I had imagined. I guess that's my left-brain pouting because my right-brain got ahead of itself. But I guess it's my left-brain that Loves taking apart beautiful RTW garments and dissecting their secrets. phew! sometimes it's crowded in there-

  10. I've enjoyed reading the posts on this topic.

    I have been calling myself an analytical creative for a while now. What is that, a left-brained artist? I don't know, but I love both science and art. I was a total math nerd, couldn't get enough of it. I have a degree in Interior Architecture and currently teach sewing. Like others have mentioned, I enjoy the directions or exacting recipe for something. Then I put my own spin on it by the materials and combination of what I choose, which is the creative/ design aspect for me. I think sewing is the perfect creative outlet for both science and art.

  11. Such a great topic! I think about this a LOT. I grew up thinking that all I ever wanted to do was be an artist, a painter. I drew and painted and was encouraged by my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather who were both artists, one painted, one used pastels. I hated math and physics in school but did well in geometry so I am definitely a conceptual thinker. All right brained? But I also grew up in a very traditional and conservative environment and was a rule follower. It wasn't until late in college and after, that I allowed myself to be more creative in art. I've been sewing since I was 10 but it was not a creative venue for me then, it was more practical. Mom would buy me fabric and a pattern more readily than new clothes.

    I grew up to be a Business Analyst working on highly technical IT projects. I find that my life is a combination of right brain/left brain but I struggle so hard to keep the balance. I'm good at my job because I have to conceptualize something and then document it. There are methodologies we follow and I go nuts when someone doesn't follow the "rules" of the methodology. Yet, I am creative and tend to be more open minded about bending the rules. Doesn't make sense sometimes.

    Sewing is not very creative for me still and I struggle with that. I've been sewing for 40 years. Clothing, home items and quilts. I love fabric, I love patterns, I love buying and storing it and I sort of like putting it together but I find that part a chore. Also, it is so much like my job that I can't seem to sew after work, only on weekends.

    I have found that quilting by machine is one of my favorite creative outlets, I do free motion and it frees me to just let it go.

  12. I find that sewing is just like learning to do math well. You master different levels of building block skills. Then you may have the talent to analyze what you are looking at to be able to reproduce or manufacture an item by combining the skills you have learned. That is something I could easily do in sewing, as I learned the skills by watching my mom sew every stitch I wore until I took over the task entirely at age 16. I was more flexible because I learned skills and concepts when my brain was very very plastic. I added to my talent and as I grew curious, I read every sewing book I could find starting at age 10. The outcome is I can read directions, and make things up without them.

    That said, I am a product of "New Math" I can confidently navigate through the concepts that are needed to solve a problem, (love story questions)but I stumble at calculations and need a calculator . I was recently tested in two areas, calculation and problem solving. I missed more than half of the calculation test as I ran out of time. I missed one on the problem solving. The testers were baffled until I mentioned "New Math". So I set out to find a way to help myself, and found some number patterns that will make not knowing the times table impossible. It was a creative and very satisfying discovery. I'm sure I couldn't have invented it, I just noticed what was evident.
    Everyone has different patterns of brain stimulus. You have tendencies, (I have a family of engineers) and you have opportunities to learn. I am often told that I am as good an engineer as my PhD brother. I have spatial reasoning skills, and can follow directions while visualizing the outcome of the design. I pose myself a question, and eventually I have a design without hard thinking. I can't take credit for great fine motor skill, or the puzzle solving ability that was mostly subconscious. This is what the brother does as well, apparently. I don't think it was such a rich environment for us either, just rich enough and with busy role models and time to do what we wanted.

  13. I'm a computer programmer by trade but I did study fine arts for 2 years and the main reason I it up, other than there's no money in it, is I need direction.

    Programming is a very left brained way of being creative. There is something very specific that needs to be done, but it can be completed in many ways and those ways are still very structured.

    Sewing kind of follows the same methodology as computer programming. You know what the finished product is but there are many different paths you can take. I guess thats why I enjoy it, even when I have a hard time getting started... eww prep work :)

  14. I am a scientist by training, but also consider myself to be quite creative. I think as far as sewing is concerned I enjoy following the recommendations and ideas of others, but I'm not afraid to improve upon it to meet my needs. I like to think that I follow the rules when it is necessary and let myself go when it is not. Experience and education let me know when it is safe to deviate. I don't consider following directions to be less creative. I think the "scientist" has to be creative in order to succeed. I think success in many things requires both sides of the brain.

  15. I think Scooter is dead-on: Creativity of concept is one thing, but you have to have the skills and the discipline to make it reality. There is a lot of work involved, and frequently quite a few rules. Let's face it--a lot of "creative" projects don't work if you don't use your materials correctly. Rules are not inherently anti-creativity: You can't build without superstructure, right?

    It's not an accident that many of the great artists--Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind--also had considerable skill in mathematics, engineering, anatomy, etc. I also wouldn't say that, say Michael DeBakey, while not an artist, wasn't super creative.

  16. Often, when I come up with a design in a fit of right-brain brainstorming, I later discover that the idea is heavily influenced by something I've seen earlier. So it's not necessarily more creative than consciously following someone else's pattern or instructions.

  17. I have a strong left brain and find joy in logic. There can be elegance and beauty in something like a database or software framework. I also have a strong right brain and I can improvise music. Sometimes this happens in a person. The disadvantage is feeling like I don't excel at one end or the other - feeling like a jack of all trades.
    But the good part is when they blend and I feel satisfaction from the creative journey. Best to focus on the joy part :)
    No good or bad or right or wong. We all have our unique makeup.

  18. Wow - Caroline it looks like you're in good company as far as being a mixed brain wonderwoman! May you be blessed with such marvelous children!
    Love, Mom

  19. I am defintely right brained and can create my own patterns for knitting, machine knitting and sewing. I usually make some changes to the patterns I use. In many instances I feel compelled, ad I wish I didn't! Having said this, I don't think it is less impressive to follow someone else's pattern. I do that too, often because of time constraints. If your knitting gives you joy and you are being creative in a way that is perfect for you then that is what counts. In my eyes it is all about what you get out of the craft you choose, not whether you can design your own or not. It is all about the joy so just keep doing what you are doing.

  20. The only way to be truly Left or Right brained exclusively is to have a lobectomy, and a dear friend of mine who HAS had one is creative and logical, process oriented and generative. We train ourselves to believe we are a certain way and that becomes our limitations.
    I remember writing a paper on an article entitled (I think) "I can do anything, I just can't do it well" (Robert Fulghum?) about the notion that we begin as children to tell ourselves that because something isn't a particular skill of ours we can not/should not enjoy it. If we are not as good at it as others, we should give it up....
    We limit ourselves, narrow our explorations to things we are already good at, to things that come easily. We think "Fitting Pants is too hard." We say "I can't design my own pattern." The assumption is that if we try something it has to be right the first time, which is ridiculous.

    Perhaps there are children who leap on a bicycle (as a prosaic example) and immediately zoom down the street. Most have help, wobble with help, wobble alone and then ride confidently. Don't be the person who doesn't try something because you might wobble a bit in the beginning. k.

  21. A lot of great posts here that I have skimmed through. My two cents...I work as a laboratory technician and as a clerical worker in a library. A LOT of precision to detail in both jobs - can't screw up a protocol in the lab or an assay can fail completely and filing books in Dewey order all see what I mean. When I sew, I use a lot of precision, I hate when seams are not perfect. But throughout high school, I was always 50/50 on the left brain/right brain scale. I took both my academics (math and science nerd!) AND art/sewing classes seriously. It made it difficult for me to figure out what to do after high school. Sufficed to say, I use total precision and follow "protocols" to a tee in sewing but I am also creative - I'll take clothes from thrift stores and reconstruct them. I love sewing because it stimulates both sides of my brain!

  22. I think this idea is a classic case of nurture rather than nature. Please don't fall into this fallacy, it limits personal experience in my opinion and also, I would suggest comes from a sexist standard which suggests females are illogical; think how many more women identify themselves are being 'creative' rather than rational or logical.

    Just read this article from the New Scientist:

    There is no left or right brain. Or at least it's not that simple.


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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