Chaos, Negative Emotions, and Creativity

Those nasty negative emotions. If only we could just do away with them, right? But they have value, and they show up more in creative (right-brained) thinkers. Here’s why they are both valuable and in larger quantity in creative types, according to Jordan Peterson:

Jordan Peterson. Excerpted transcript starts at 15:05

“We have two hemispheres … a left hemisphere and the right hemisphere and people often think of the left for right-handed people … No one exactly knows why and we know that they house quasi-independent consciousnesses… Now Goldberg hypothesized instead that the hemispheres were specialized for novelty and familiarity or for chaos and order and so that’s pretty damn cool.… Goldberg came up with this in a historical pathway that was entirely independent from any mythologically inspired thinking… The idea is that we have one hemisphere that reacts very rapidly to things we don’t know and it’s more imaginative and diffuse in it and it’s associated more with negative emotion, because negative emotion is what you should feel immediately when you encounter something you don’t understand, because it’s a form of thinking. Negative emotion, it’s like I’m somewhere where things aren’t what they should be. Right hemisphere does that… generates images very rapidly to help you figure out what might be there and then the left hemisphere takes that and develops it into something that’s more articulated and algorithmic and fully understood. So there’s this dynamic balance between the right and the left hemisphere where the left tries to impose order on the world… and the right hemisphere generates novelty and reacts to the novelty and generates novel hypotheses…

“That’s what’s happening during the dream… information is moved from the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere in small doses basically so that the novel revelations of the right hemisphere don’t demolish the algorithmic structures that the left hemisphere has so carefully put together. And I like that theory too, because it also does help justify the hypothesis that I’d been laying out for you, which is that there’s part of us that extends ourselves out into the world and tries to understand what we don’t know, and that that part extends itself out with behavior, and also with emotion, and also with image, and then maybe with poetry, and then maybe with storytelling, and then as that develops then we develop more and more articulated representations of that emergent knowledge. So you can map that quite nicely onto the neurologists’ and the neuropsychologists’ presumption about what constitutes the reason for the hemispheric differentiation. But the other thing that’s so cool about the hemispheric differentiation argument, as far as I’m concerned, and this is really worth thinking about because it’s a real— there’s a word that Ned Flanders uses for that— noggin scratcher. I think it’s something like that. Anyways we make the assumption that what we are biologically adapted to is reality.

“It’s actually an axiomatic definition, if you’re a Darwinian, because nature is what selects. By definition that’s what nature is— it’s what selects— and if the nature that selects has forced upon you a dual hemispheric structure because half of you has to deal with the chaos and half has to deal with order then you can make a pretty damn strong inferential case that the world is made out of chaos and order.”


So there is biological support for the stereotype of the troubled artist. Next time you encounter a creative person experiencing negative emotions have some compassion: they aren’t defective, they are manifesting their hemispheric dominance. Creativity is literally the act of creation: bringing order out of chaos, and negative emotions are key to that endeavor. Hopefully, we can agree the world is a better place because all those finicky, tempermental artists are in it.

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