30 May Left Brain Right Brain: What About the Whole Brain?
I was offered the opportunity to undertake a free diagnostic in order to understand my left brain versus right brain dominance. Hence, my optimal learning style. Feeling I had better ways to use my time, I politely turned down the offer and spent the time thinking (with both my hemispheres). Why is this left-right brain thinking styles belief still so prevalent?
Before you accuse me of being typically left-brained biased I did do a wonderfully colourful mind-map planning this short article.
Iain McGilchrist, in his most excellent book “The Master and his Emissary”, cites the psychologist Robert Ornstein. In 1970 he “hypothesized that Western people only use half their brains and hence only half their mental capacity.” He argued that people in Western cultures have a well-trained left hemisphere, due to the focus on language and logical thinking. They do, however, neglect their right hemisphere and its intuitive, emotional way of thinking.
These ideas have persisted and over the last 10-15 years, the two sides of the brain have come to symbolize two different sides of human nature. The left brain is seen as “logical,” “analytical” and “intellectual. The “intuitive” right brain is viewed as the home of creativity and lateral thinking. More recently, the terminology has morphed into a “whole brain approach”. You can use “whole brain” approaches to leadership or “whole brain” approaches to create successful relationships etc.
A host of popular books on educational strategies, personal development, leadership development and even therapeutic interventions have ensued. These promise to enhance mental abilities and relieve mental maladies.
So how might this dualism of left brain logic and right brain intuition have come about?
Well, there is a rich history and tradition in the west of separating rational and intuitive thinking. Further, there is even a tendency to delineate rational and intuitive people. So one answer is that maybe we were looking for what we expected to see?
Is there an underlying biological base to the left and right brain hypothesis? Well, yes and no.
We do, of course, have left and right hemispheres and there is a degree of specialisation among them. Some researchers interpreted the specialised functions of the two hemispheres as different thinking styles. Thus, the localisation of language and the proposed serial processing of stimuli in the left hemisphere were equated with a rational, analytical, logical thinking style. The preponderance in the right hemisphere of non-verbal, visuospatial tasks, together with the proposed simultaneous processing, was equated with a holistic, intuitive, emotional way of thinking.
If there are Differences is the Hypothesis Correct?
If the hemispheres are different; doesn’t this support left right brain theories? Actually, no.
The notion of different hemispheric thinking styles is based on an erroneous premise. This premise is that each brain hemisphere is specialized. Therefore, each must function independently with a different thinking style.
It is a huge leap of faith to correlate differences in function and structure with different thinking styles. To my knowledge, there is no direct scientific evidence supporting the idea that different thinking styles lie within each hemisphere.
If one considers the right hemispheric solely for creative and emotional thinking styles this is not entirely accurate. Again, there is no scientific evidence that supports a correlation between creativity and the activity of the right hemisphere. Further, there is no evidence of a correlation between any degree of creativity and the use of the right hemisphere.
There is no direct scientific evidence that supports an analytical, logical thinking style for the left hemisphere. This means there is no predisposition that delineates the left hemisphere for mathematical tasks, reading or writing.
We do, however, know that both hemispheres are involved in most types of thinking. For example, recalling and using words and sentence structure seem to involve the left hemisphere. Subtleties of meaning such as interpreting humour or sarcasm, seem to involve the right hemisphere as well as the left.
In music, the ability to produce and respond is conventionally ascribed to the right side of the brain. In processing musical elements such as pitch, tempo, and melody engages a number of areas-including some in the left hemisphere.
Deriving different hemispheric thinking styles from functional asymmetries is a huge leap of faith. It is not really grounded in science. In fact, (and I am trying to use my whole brain here) as these left-right brain ideas have become popular, the underlying science has been grossly oversimplified and misinterpreted. This is something to think about with your whole brain. Especially before you pay someone to assess your brain dominance.