I’m a neuroscientist by trade. Popular culture would most likely label me ‘logical, detail-oriented and analytical’ (which I am!)
BUT when I was in high school, I considered applying to art school and pursuing a career as a painter. And I dabble in botanical watercolour and love designing in Canva. You could also label me ‘creative, thoughtful and artistic.’
No doubt you’ve heard the concept that the left side of the brain is logical and analytical, whereas the right side of the brain is artistic and creative.
Maybe you even landed on this article because you googled the phrase and arrived here? (You’re very welcome!!).
The idea is that personality or cognitive processes (ways of thinking) are cultivated on one side of the brain or other, giving rise to the rather nifty idea that you are right-brained or left-brained, creative or analytical … neuroscientist or artist.
No evidence from brain scans that people are ‘right-brained’ versus ‘left-brained’.
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’.
A team from the University of Utah scanned the brains of 1,011 people between the ages of seven and 29. They used a technique called resting-state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fcMRI)… forget about that mouthful for now. The study tested the idea that one half of a person’s brain is more active, more connected and more synchronised than the other.
The team divided each person’s brain into over 7,000 regions and examined each region to see if it showed stronger activity on the left or the right side of the brain. They also looked for connections between regions that were more localised (also called ‘lateralised’) to one hemisphere or the other.
Because, as 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.
Neuroscientist Dr Jeff Anderson, lead author of the study, said,
It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain. Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right.
But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network.
How did the left-brain vs right-brain myth come about?
The two hemispheres of the brain are slightly different anatomically and microscopically (which means they look a bit different when you look at them with your eyes and down the microscope).
And, the two hemispheres of the brain (connected by the corpus callosum) do perform different jobs. In the industry, we call this lateralisation of brain function. Lateralisation is the tendency for some neural functions or processes to be specialised to one side of the brain or the other
For example, the left side of the brain controls movement on the right side of the body and vice-versa. Speech and language, are typically jobs performed by the left hemisphere. But not ALL aspects of speech are left-sided. Intonation, for example, is found on the right. As an interesting aside…language and ‘handed-ness’ are related. Whereas 97% of right-handed people have their speech centre on the left, only 70% of left-handers do.
Also, studies of patients with tumours or stroke show that our sense of our body and limbs in space (proprioception) is more likely located in the right hemisphere.
Some neuroscientists theorise that these differences and the brain asymmetries of language, spatial perception and handedness probably led to the prevailing myth that personality and styles of thinking are also located to one hemisphere or the other.
But what if I AM a right-brain creative type?
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has talents, and everyone has weaknesses they need to work on.
Recognise and foster your talents. Set goals and develop new skills.
Just don’t attribute ‘whole brain’, global functions or personality or career choices to one hemisphere of the brain being weaker or stronger than the other. The brain is way more complex (and interesting) than that!
Is there a problem with using left-brain versus right-brain … just for fun?
One problem that has arisen from this mythology is the raft of books, tests, apps, workshops and online games that exploit the myth by promising to help you ‘tap into your creative right brain’.
Fine — if you want to spend your money on them and expand on skills and knowledge that you may not already have. BUT this simplistic right-brained vs left-brained view is not grounded in our contemporary understanding of how the brain works.
Also, 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.
Christian Jarrett who writes for Psychology Today sums my thoughts up perfectly:
I suppose the logical left-brain, creative right-brain myth has a seductive simplicity about it. People can ask – which kind of brain have I got? They can buy an app to target their weaker half. They can categorise languages and people as right-brained or left.
It’s tricky to combat that belief system by saying the truth is really more complicated. But it’s worth trying, because it would be a shame if the simplistic myth drowned out the more fascinating story of how our brains really work.
Nielsen et al. 2013. An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging. PLoS ONE. Costandi M. 2013. 50 ideas you really need to know about the human brain. Quercus Editions. London. Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jaselabs/4294058222
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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