Learning Myth #2: You are either left brain or right brain

LearningMyth-LeftBrainRightBrain_Header


What does the left brain / right brain myth claim?

The brain is quite a funny thing. It’s essentially two squishy blobs meshed together inside a bone sphere that looks pretty unremarkable. Yet it’s responsible for everything we are. Our personality, all our memories, quirks, and revolutionary shower thoughts are created by electric impulses. It’s one of life’s biggest ironies that our brains are still quite a mystery to us. The idea that one side is more dominant than the other is referred to as “lateralisation of brain function”, it is said that those who are right-side dominated are more creative and artsy, and tend to be more intuitive and in touch with their emotions.According to this theory, the ideal job for a right-sided individual is a job such as artist, poet, musician, or creative executive.

According to this theory, the ideal job for a right-sided individual is a job such as artist, poet, musician, or creative executive. Whereas those who are left-side dominant, are more logical and good at problem solving, e.g. being good at chess. Left-sided individuals should strive for careers in analytical fields such as law, science, or accounting.

It is also said that the way in which each individual learns is directly related to their dominant hemisphere. Left-brainers think linearly, and learn by processing symbols such as letters, words, and mathematical notations. Right-brainers are more holistic in their learning, and need a “hands on” approach to understanding information.

Let’s investigate this myth and see how and why it came about.


What is the origin of the ‘Left/right brain’ myth?

Early indications of lateralised brain function came from the research of a French physician named Pierre Paul Broca in 1861. His research involved the autopsy of patient named “Tan” who due to a speech impediment could only articulate the word “tan” (a little bit like a scientific case of Game of Thrones’ Hodor). During his autopsy, it was discovered that Tan had a “syphilitic lesion in the left cerebral hemisphere” (or as it is now known: Broca’s area) a zone of the brain that is important for speech production. This discovery kicked off the theory of isolated and dominant thought process (aka. certain things happening in particular locations in your noggin).

Pierre Paul Broca





German physician Karl Wernickle expanded on this by examining language processing. He discovered that damage to the back left of the brain, the superior temporal gyrus (Wernicke's area) of the brain, caused errors in language comprehension. Hence, different abilities were determined to be in particular areas of the brain. Science delved deeper into discovering the working capacity of our hemispheres.





In the 1960’s, Nobel-laureate neuroscientist Roger Wolcott Sperry worked on “split-brain” patients, patients who had undergone a slightly creepy treatment for epilepsy by means of severing the large part of the corpus callosum (a section near the centre that acts as a nerve connecting bridge between the two hemispheres). One notable side effect of the treatment was loss of speech in some patients, and in others, a truly spooky syndrome known as “alien-hand syndrome”, where patients limbs developed individual personalities and suddenly started acting on their own. These experiments discovered that there were differences in the abilities of each hemisphere, most notably speech in the right hemisphere as a carry-on from Broca’s early studies.

These experiments were “limited” and described as “nuanced” at best, and although scientific research doesn’t often reach beyond scientific settings, the results of this experimental research somehow left the lab and entered misinterpreted and oversimplified into pop culture.

In 1973, the New York Times published an article titled “We Are Left-Brained or Right-Brained,” which began: “Two very different persons inhabit our heads…one of them is verbal, analytic, dominant. The other is artistic.” Like an intellectual contagion, the concept spread rapidly despite Sperry himself noting that “experimentally observed polarity in right-left cognitive style is an idea in general with which it is very easy to run wild.

The theory of brain lateralisation can be found in all sorts of places. There is a tantalising article on oprah.com that promises to teach you how to tap into right-Brain thinking, and another revealing “eye-opening insights” on the theory. This misunderstood information about our brains keeps popping up all over the place despite many signs pointing to myth.


What is the truth about the myth?

When it comes to the brain’s ability to process, research has found that while some tasks do occur almost entirely in one hemisphere of the brain, the brain works as a whole network of connections and completing any task requires the collaboration of both sides.

"No matter how lateralised the brain can get, though, the two sides still work together," science writer Carl Zimmer explained in an article for Discover magazine.

If the right-left brained theory was completely accurate then theoretically mathematics would take part only in the left side of the brain (excusing any day-dreaming or doodling that may occur during a boring lesson). In the case of mathematics, research has found that individual’s abilities are strongest when both hemisphere’s work collaboratively towards a common goal. In split-brain patients, Joel Levy notes that “while the right hemisphere struggles to speak, it is nonetheless involved in processing some aspects of the language, such an intonation and emphasis.”

-MRI-scan-of-a-brain-with-heat-maps



Leading cognitive scientist Kara D. Federmeier says that “it seems safe to say that for the most part we all use both sides of our brain almost all the time”, but although the theory of lateralisation may seem to be defined, discoveries of the mind have not even come close to finishing. The exciting future facing us as science delves deeper into exploring the way our brains work seems infinite.

Recently it has been discovered that there is a correlation between “reverse” laterality and left-handed individuals, where control of speech is centred in the right rather than the left hemisphere. Though Federmeier notes that is “important not to overgeneralise from this: the vast majority of left-handed people have the typical lateralisation pattern”).


What does this mean for us?

Ultimately, we should be careful not to limit ourselves and our ability to learn based on the right/left brain theory. Rather than seeing our ability to learn as a biological preset ability, we should be open to developing skills, thinking laterally, and pushing ourselves beyond our current limitations.

It does feel comforting sometimes to categorise ourselves, you may consider yourself a morning person rather than a night owl, be a dog or cat person, or even Home and Away or Neighbours fan. Categorising yourself with regards to the lateralisation theory is relatively harmless when taken with a pinch of salt, but The Guardian’s Amy Novotney believes that the problems arise when this myth becomes a “self fulfilling prophecy”.

“When your 12-year-old fills out an online personality test that pegs her as a "right-brainer" and she decides to skip her math homework – because the test told her she isn't good with numbers – the persistence of this false dichotomy starts to become destructive. The same goes for the unemployed worker who forgoes applying for their dream job because the job description calls for creativity skills they think they may not have.” she says.

So if you are ever scratching your head because you are supposedly left-side-dominant despite having an avid interest in pottery just remember that your brain is a winning duo, not a competing rivalry.

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The read Kara D. Federmeier’s full interview: NPR: The Truth About The Left Brain / Right Brain Relationship


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