Writers: using the right and left sides of your brain

The Creative Zone is a magical place – but when we deliberately set out to get back into The Zone – guess what? We can’t find our way back. And the more we try, the harder it seems. If only we knew where it was… Does The Zone really exist as an anatomical entity in our brains? Where is it?

The Creative Zone

For writers, the Creative Zone is a wonderful place to be. The Zone is where everything seems possible, our thoughts fly free and words just flow onto the page without any struggle or effort.  Although the work we produce in The Zone will need to be shaped and edited at a later date, it is in The Zone – this magical place – that we weave and spin the raw material that forms the basis of our finished writing.

The Zone may be a difficult place to describe but we usually recognise it when we get there. In a previous post, I listed the 7 signs of being in The ZoneAre you writing in The Zone? 7 key signs

Most of us fall into The Zone as if by accident. We love it. But, of course, we have to return to real life eventually. Next time we sit down to write – when we deliberately set out to get back into The Zone – guess what? We can’t find our way. And the more we try, the harder it seems.

If only we knew where it was…

Where is The Zone?

Does The Zone really exist as an anatomical entity in our brains? And, if so, where is it?

brainYou will be familiar with diagrams that show the cerebral cortex of our brain is divided into two halves or two hemispheres – one on the left and one on the right. Each hemisphere is responsible for controlling different functions of our body.

Rather confusingly, the left side of our brain controls the muscles of our right arm and leg.  While the right side controls our left limbs.

And here is an interesting fact: The speech centre of our brain is situated within the left hemisphere. Speech is on the left. Remember that.

There is a hypothetical model that takes the idea of separate functions even further. This is often called the left v. right model of the brain and it can be summarised as follows:

  • Left side of brain: analytical and logical.
  • Right side of brain: artistic and creative.

Let’s look at this model in a little more detail and relate it to the artistic process.

Left side of the brain - words and numbersModel: what happens in the left brain?

The left hand side of the brain is responsible for analytic and critical thinking. It keeps time, understands maths, follows rules, controls language.

If you are a painter, the left side of your brain helps you deal with choosing your raw material – paper, paint, brushes. As you paint, it judges size and perspective and tonal values and deals with the logistics of colour mixing.

If you are a writer, the left side of your brain sorts out the spelling and the grammar and checks the consistency of descriptive details as your story progresses. It checks for holes in the plot and considers whether your story arc needs adjusting and deals with word count and makes indexes and lists references.

The left side of your brain may sound a little boring but plays a vital role. It is the task-master, the check-list maker, the editor, the critic.

right side of the brain, colours, shapes and patternsModel: what happens in the right brain?

The right side of the brain is a wild child in comparison. It is illogical, a fun-seeker, the spinner of dreams. The right side does not understand the passing of time. It ignores rules and allows us to think laterally – spinning ideas off into all sorts of new directions. It deals with shapes and colours and patterns and emotional reactions. It avoids labels and avoids words.

If you are a painter, the right side of your brain deals with colours and shapes. It tells you to place this brush stroke here and to draw that line over there. While painting in The Zone, you can’t explain why you are making this particular choice with colours or lines or strokes – you just know that it feels right.

If you are a writer, the right side of your brain generates the ideas and constructs the vivid, imaginary worlds you inhabit. The right side produces your make-believe characters who seem to come alive and may act and talk and behave as if they were outside of your conscious control. While in The Zone, this imaginary world becomes real and your work seems to write itself.

Eureka! We’ve found it. The right hand side of the brain, it  seems, is where The Zone must lie.

Light bulb moment: All we need to do is to find a switch to turn-on the right side of our brain and turn-off the left.


spacer - Ruth Livingstone - writer

BUT – hang on – what about WORDS?

Didn’t we just say that the right side of your brain avoids words? 

Yes. That’s what the model says. Speech is on the left. When you are working on the right side of your brain, words are not part of your world. You are speechless.

Perhaps speechlessness may not matter for artists – but what about writers? For writers, words are the vital stuff from which all our creative work flows. They are the iron in our alchemy. They are the atoms in our universe.

Without words, we are nothing!

Sigh. It all seemed far too easy to be really true.

We are left with a burning question:

If The Zone is not lodged in the right side of our cerebral cortex, where the heck is it? And does it matter? Well, that brings me back to the opening sentence of this post.  If only we knew where it was, perhaps it would be easier to get there. Let’s keep looking…

Author: Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, doctor, woman, etc.

13 thoughts on “Writers: using the right and left sides of your brain”

  1. Interesting post 🙂

    Well, I think I’ll put my two-cents forward and say:

    I think when someone works in their zone they are using the left and right concurrently. It is a marriage of our logical side and creative side. A moment where the two feel as if they don’t contradict. Our imaginative side feeding our logical side with the ideas that we so desire to express.


  2. Do you realise this is all completely wrong? Our brains work in unison. There is no such thing as a left brain right brain thinker. Creativity is not isolated within “artistic” endeavors such as writing and painting.


    1. Hi there! And yes, I do agree that the left-right brain hypothesis is neurologically incorrect. Hope I made that point in the blog post. It is a useful concept though, helping us to understand and separate bouts of wild creativity from more reflective analysis.


      1. But this kind of thing is so counter intuitive – as you said, it is neurologically incorrect. Why on earth would it be a good idea to believe in an untrue concept? A writer clearly uses both sides of his/her brain while constructing a coherent story. Working out a plot is a mathematical process. Even a poet needs to do this – the beats of poem for example. The flip side is that math requires creativity as well. Look at astrophysics, calculus, or basic pen and paper problem solving. There are just so many contradictions within the “theory” It is extremely limiting to suggest that any of this left brain right brain stuff applies to an individual’s personality and or strengths and weaknesses. It definitely seems that people who believe in this kind of thing of an agenda or personal bias of some kind, because the concept of left brain right brain is so completely and utterly absurd it.


  3. Hi Ruth, while on google for some resources I came across you blog – you explain it very clearly and succinctly. Am writing on creativity with a revelational (my own made up word) approach – the “problem” is that I am mostly a painter,and – can’t get my words out – the second strike against me writing is that English is my second language. Wish me smooth sailing, because I need it. Have a great week ahead!


  4. I am currently studying the L-R concept profoundly to understand and improve my writing, and I love your post as a great summary. The L-R theory stems from research by Sperry who won the Nobel Prize in 1981.
    I do believe that good writing involves the R mainly, although progress on brain research suggests L-R is not dictated by the left/right hemispheres as such. As a concept, though, it’s still valid I think: L = analytical, logical, rational; R = creative, conceptual, emotional (as a rough division).
    It’s a pity you stopped where it becomes interesting :), that is: HOW can we switch off L and prompt R-modus. The current way is to write and write and write from the gut, prompted by trigger words. This seems to me a crude way and difficult to systematically improve your writing (although training by itself isn’t a bad thing).
    I found a very interesting pdf to switch off L and invoke R for artist work (drawing) (if anyone is interested (jesh? :)), feel free to drop me an email (pisano dot leonardo57 at gmail dot com).
    My interest is to develop a comparable method for writers.
    Drifting slightly off-topic, I believe the concept of the fictive dream has a similar ground: keep the reader in R-modus as much as you can to maximize his/her entertainment/engagement. Assuming this principle as an axioma is true, all “rules” like Show, don’t tell, believability, language, consistency, wordiness, explanations, and so on, derive from that and become logical if you relate them to the L-R difference. “Violations” of the aforementioned rules are simply kicking the reader into L-modus (=disturbing the fictive dream).
    Any thoughts regarding this subject by anyone are highlly appreciated.


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