Are You Left-Brained? Right-Brained? That’s Nice. Now Forget It.The rise and fall of a really Cool myth about the brain
If you have a few minutes waiting in line, you can try various tests on the internet to help you “figure out the huge dilemma”: Are you left- or right-brained? Or, at least, “Which side of your brain is more dominant?” (in 30 seconds). Buzzfeed, more elaborately, offers a Triangle Test to reveal the dominant side.
This stuff is fun (maybe). But should we take it seriously? No.
Many of us have heard one version or another of the pop psych myth that the brain functions as two separate departments, logic (left) vs. creativity (right). The myth carries conversations and sells workshops, books and TV shows. In reality, the brain’s two hemispheres work together for most jobs, the degree of separation differs between individuals, and there is no “general pattern of dominance.” (Centre for Educational Neuroscience).
How did the notion of the left vs. right brain get started? Nineteenth century neuroscientists such as Paul Broca (1824–1880) and Carl Wernicke (1848–1905) identified regions on either side of the brain associated with specific tasks. Later and more dramatically, neuroscientist Roger Sperry (1913–1994) studied patients whose brains had been split in half, to prevent epileptic seizures originating on one side of the brain from destroying the whole of it. Such patients functioned normally except for certain disabilities that could be identified through sophisticated testing.
But later, left vs. right theory took on a life of its own:
The idea spread around the realm of science, from New York Times Magazine (1973), Harvard Business Review (1976), Psychology Today (1977) until such time that Sperry received that 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Since this still remains as a theory, many scientists gained interest in making researches to prove the claim while there were also a bunch of researches and experiments that were conducted to serve as its negative counterpart. These then paved way to a lot of discussion about the left brain versus right brain theory up to the present time.Sam Kramer, “Left Brain Vs. Right Brain: Know The Myths” at Consumer Health Digest (July 24, 2019)
But more than buzz was at work. The notion of left-brained vs. right-brained got swept into education controversies, as neuroscientist Lisa Learman explains:
By the 1970s, educational circles believed that traditional teaching practices reflected a tragic lack of effort to develop the right brain in children. The literary field advocated for “writing with right brain to release expressive powers.” Many artists and musicians turned to brain laterality for curricular and theoretical guidance. For many, the idea that there was an untapped well of creativity in the right, submissive halves of our brains was appealing.4 In 1979, American artist, teacher and author Betty Edwards published her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, in which she asserted that her success in drawing was due to an ability to switch into the “right mode” of her brain and tap into her creativity and emotional intelligence. Indeed, even today polarities of the brain are broadly invoked in art, business, education, literary theory and other facets of culture…
Additionally, categorizing oneself as right- or left-brained may satisfy a human craving for order. Similar to astrological signs, labeling ourselves by dominant brain hemisphere gives us the security of a defined personality type, capable of explaining actions in the past and predicting the future.Lisa Learman, “Left- vs. Right-Brained: Why the Brain Laterality Myth Persists” at Biomedical Odyssey (May 22, 2019)
In short, the distinction serves psychological rather than science needs. Learman also notes that many people think of analysis and creativity as opposites. In reality, great mathematicians depend on creativity and great artists depend on precision.
Neuroscientist Sarah McKay, author of The Women’s Brain Book, notes, “This popular notion was debunked in 2013 by University of Utah neuroscientists who used brain imaging to show there is NO evidence that people are ‘right-brained’ or ‘left-brained.’ The study of 1011 people between ages 7 and 29 scanned over over 7,000 brain regions to detect stronger activity on the left or right side. They also checked for local connections between the hemispheres.
And what did they find? Jared Nielsen, a PhD student who worked on the study, said, “we just don’t see patterns where the whole left-brain network is more connected or the whole right-brain network is more connected in some people. It may be that personality types have nothing to do with one hemisphere being more active, stronger, or more connected.” (McKay)
McKay doesn’t think the fad is entirely harmless: “believing that you are ‘creative but not analytical’, or ‘logical and unintuitive’ and that is hard-wired into your brain, is a rather limiting belief and probably becomes self-fulfilling after a while.”
The fad has made inroads into education:
Educators are increasingly encouraged to attend courses on “brain-based learning.” These courses often illustrate how ingrained these neuromyths have become. For example, some brain-based learning courses encourage educators to identify students as left-brained or right-brained and to adjust their teaching approach for these different learning styles. As a result, many teachers believe that this is a valid, scientifically backed idea. For example, in a sample of 242 teachers, 90 percent agreed with the statement “differences in left-brain right-brain [preference] can help explain individual differences amongst learners.” This is alarming given that this belief may influence the way in which teachers instruct specific students or groups of students and result in unconscious biases about a given student’s academic abilities (e.g., a teacher assumes that a student labeled as a “right-brainer” is not strong in math).Kara Blacker, “Debunking the Left-Brain/Right-Brain Myth” at Science of Learning Institute (December 15, 2016)
Then, she adds, students may come to believe it themselves and handicap their own performance. Meanwhile, researchers reported in a survey of literature in 2019 that left vs. right brain theories were “unlikely” to improve educational outcomes.
In short, today, the theory works best as an icebreaker and party game.
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No, you do not have a lizard brain inside your human brain. The “lizard brain” is part of what science used to know about the brain that ain’t so.