Creative brains: Designing in the real world

Vinod Goel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The process of designing artifacts is a creative activity. It is proposed that, at the cognitive level, one key to understanding design creativity is to understand the array of symbol systems designers utilize. These symbol systems range from being vague, imprecise, abstract, ambiguous, and indeterminate (like conceptual sketches), to being very precise, concrete, unambiguous, and determinate (like contract documents). The former types of symbol systems support associative processes that facilitate lateral (or divergent) transformations that broaden the problem space, while the latter types of symbol systems support inference processes facilitating vertical (or convergent) transformations that deepen of the problem space. The process of artifact design requires the judicious application of both lateral and vertical transformations. This leads to a dual mechanism model of design problem-solving comprising of an associative engine and an inference engine. It is further claimed that this dual mechanism model is supported by an interesting hemispheric dissociation in human prefrontal cortex. The associative engine and neural structures that support imprecise, ambiguous, abstract, indeterminate representations are lateralized in the right prefrontal cortex, while the inference engine and neural structures that support precise, unambiguous, determinant representations are lateralized in the left prefrontal cortex. At the brain level, successful design of artifacts requires a delicate balance between the two hemispheres of prefrontal cortex.

Original languageEnglish
Article number241
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue number1 APR
Publication statusPublished - Apr 30 2014


  • Architecture
  • Cognition
  • Creativity
  • Drawing
  • Hemispheric asymmetry
  • Lesion studies
  • Neuropsychology
  • Representations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Neurology
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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