Why The Right-Brain, Left-Brain Myth Is So Wrong

Is your boss too left-brained? Did your English teacher urge you to think more with the right side of your brain? New research suggests that this kind of thinking might be all wrong.

There's nothing quite so delicious as clean, simple answers for messy, complex things--like, say, our how our brains work and how they relate to our personalities. Loads of books will tell you about how the left side of your brain is cold, analytical, and logical while the right ride is effusive, creative, and unruly, an odd couple co-habitating in your cranium, with your personality and team dynamics following suit.

But new research suggests that this line of thinking is a simplification; it's not that creative people have more activity on the right side of their brain and that analytical people are weighted to the left. It's more complex than that. As University of Illinois cognitive neuroscientist Kara D. Federmeier tells NPR, research suggests that while hemispheres do have specialities, processes that we identify as "creative" or "analytic" happen across both--with intriguing interplay between sides.

Where you experience language

Adjectives change where words get processed. Consider these two pairings of adjective and noun:

  • "green book"
  • "interesting book"

Federmeier says that "green book" refers to something concrete, so it's easy to make a mental image of a green-bound hardcover. But "interesting book" causes you to think about the content of the book, which is more abstract.

Concrete and abstract words are processed differently in the brain. The left hemisphere likes to predict word combinations, which, she says, was reflected in the activity in the brain upon hearing "green" or "interesting" book. But what's more intriguing is what happens in the brain given an image. As Federmeier explains:

It was the right hemisphere that elicited imagery-related brain activity to "green book" compared to "interesting book." Thus, although the left hemisphere is clearly important for language processing, the right hemisphere may play a special role in creating the rich sensory experience that often accompanies language comprehension ... and that makes reading such a pleasure.

The lesson: If you're writing something, look for an image that can make your idea clearer, as that will send your words through a greater breadth of the reader's brain.

Where math happens

Dr. Federmeir asks us to consider math skills, "which are often taken to be part of what the "logical" left hemisphere would be good at." But in fact, different hemispheres handle different aspects of math. The left side of your brain takes care of tasks like counting and reciting multiplication tables. These rely on memorized verbal information--and are not, she says, what you think of as logical. The right hemisphere excels in other math-related tasks, like estimating how many M&Ms are in a jar.

You need both sides, she emphasizes:

This kind of pattern, in which both hemispheres of the brain make critical contributions, holds for most types of cognitive skills. It takes two hemispheres to be logical--or to be creative.

This reminds us of how difficult it is to pigeonhole a discipline. Just a few weeks ago mathemetician-turned-founder Andrew Kessler was telling us about how entrepreneurship and mathematics draw upon much of the same skill set: both, he says, require the willingness to go "down a blind alley" and test possible solutions, which is a creative act.

Our takeaway: that creative and logical acts require both sides of the brain, while engrossing communication tickles either side, too.

Hat tip: NPR

[Image: Flickr user Nik Gaffney]

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3 Comments

  • The brain dominance theory is totally nonsensical and counterintuitive. NEVER understood how anyone could buy into it. The theory is full of so many mind bending contradictions that defy the most basic laws of logic and reason that I am left seriously wondering what the motivation is behind the propagation of "left brain/right brain" self help books, blogs and lecture series.