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Science and Art ... a match made in heaven?

It is widely believed that people tend to be either right-brained or left-brained. Are you highly analytical, mostly think in a linear and logical way, well organised and pay great attention to detail? If so, you will be classified as left-brain dominant. On the other hand, if your thinking process is more intuitive and imaginative, you are highly visual, you gravitate towards being a big-picture thinker who is good at deciphering nonverbal cues you will be classified as right brain dominant.

Creative hobbies like music or painting are supposed to come more easily to right-brained people. However, a number of studies show significant benefits of creative hobbies for left-brainers. 

Since childhood I was told that I am very good at maths. I was put in the specialist mathematics and physics stream in high school and it was only natural that I ended up studying mathematics and computer sciences in both my undergraduate as well as masters degrees.  I grew up believing that I am hopeless at anything ‘artsy’. A number of tests in my early career confirmed that I am a left-brainer.  It was a great surprise to both my family as well as to myself when one day, after another scientific day at my job at CSIRO, I felt an urge to paint.  At the time I had no idea about the kind of changes that my new passion would bring to the way I think, look at the world and approach problem solving.

I must admit that sometimes I worried that people would take me less seriously as a mathematical professional if they find out how passionate I am about painting. It’s as if those two activities are mutually exclusive!  It was a great relief when I found out that Albert Einstein has been an accomplished violinist, who admitted that he would have been a musician had he not pursued science. He once said “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music”. Einstein credited number of his discoveries to his musical experience and knowledge, saying that he often imagined scientific problems within the context of music, letting his mind follow his intuition and only later convert it into logical sequence. Music allowed Einstein to fuel the creative part of the brain, which would not have been regularly accessed if he was just focusing on logic and analytical thought processes.

As I experimented with different painting mediums over the years, I noticed that the more I painted the easier it was for me to think conceptually and look at a problem from many different perspectives. I became more comfortable exploring situations under ambiguous conditions, and to progress work with various obstacles and very limited guidelines. It might be due to the fact that the painter starts with an empty canvas and a concept; given of course that he/she is planning an original painting. One has to plan the painting in one’s mind and feel the concept in one’s heart. The image in the painter’s mind changes as the painting evolves, requiring the painter to adapt, adjust shapes, colours and composition.  They must continuously visualise in his/hers mind what the impact of those changes are likely to be on the final image. 

As I painted more, I had no choice but to put some of my creations on my walls, hence unwittingly inviting comments from family and friends who visited my home. Until then I never realised how vulnerable artists can feel and how many emotions are suddenly on display via the created images. It is then that I realised that I did not paint what I saw but what I felt; and that painting might not be just my way to relax but also a great way to enhance my emotional growth. A big part of emotional intelligence is to understand one’s own feelings and to know what impacts our moods, as well as understanding various emotional triggers. For example, painting what one ‘sees’ in one’s mind, rather than trying to copy a photograph, allows one to explore all those feelings and subconsciously analyse them through the creation of an original image.  

What I love most about painting is how it allows me to let go of boundaries, restrictions and opens my mind to limitless possibilities. What Albert Einstein once said “Invention is not the product of logical thought, even though the final product is tied to a logical structure” finally started making perfect sense to my left brain.

My advice to anyone who is contemplating taking up painting is never to paint in a way so as to optimise the likelihood of others liking it. This will hinder your imagination and creativity. Having no expectations and not worrying about judgement is critical. One of my favourite quotes is by Georgia O’Keeffe “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing”.

Taking up an ‘artsy’ hobby is one of the most effective ways to improve creativity and imagination as it develops innovative thinking. Psychologists believe that artistic pursuits promote optimism and positive attitudes, which in turn can have a very beneficial impact on one’s general mental wellbeing. 

Research on neuroplasticity has demonstrated to us that the brain has the ability to change, where it can form new connections between brain cells and learn new things throughout life. There is no reason why, with a bit of practice, one can’t learn to switch between the left and right brain depending on what one is trying to do. For left-brainers taking up painting is one of the easiest ways to achieve this!

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