The creative-right vs analytical-left brain myth: debunked!

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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


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28 Comments

  1. Elzbieta Uher on October 29, 2013 at 12:10 am

    Thank you for this interesting information. A while ago, I did a little test to determine/confirm which side of my brain is predominant…According to the result…I was both “right brained” and “left brained”. I repeated the test later ( different versions) with the same result. Well, now I understand why…Thank you.

    • Sarah McKay on November 1, 2013 at 9:26 am

      Thanks Elzbieta – sounds like the results was pretty accurate!! Sarah

  2. Alyse on April 16, 2014 at 6:18 am

    Really enjoyed your article in Mind Body Green today. It lead me to your site that has
    a lot of interesting information for example: debunking the right brain left brain.
    I’ll keep reading….

    • Sarah McKay on April 16, 2014 at 7:18 am

      Well thank you! Glad to have done some debunking for you 🙂 Go sign up to my newsletter and keep in touch.

  3. J on June 3, 2014 at 1:52 am

    Great article. I believe too that the danger here is a self fulfilling prophecy (in young people especially).

    Take this blog for example:

    http://www.graphicdesignblender.com/left-brain-exercises-for-creative-people

    Now, what is written over there is clearly wrong and there are several other websites which present similar ideas.

    For me, I have a degree in Fine Art, studied art composition, the golden ratio and am acutely aware that visual art is a mathematical endeavor as well as a creative one.

    I just can not believe that people continue to perpetuate a concept (left brain/right brain) that is clearly incorrect.The contradictions are so obvious even when looked at casually.

    • Sarah McKay on June 3, 2014 at 8:38 am

      YES yes yes!! The idea is pervasive! I think its fine to have analogies about how we ‘think’, but it’s NOT based on how the brain works.
      Nice to have you round these parts.

  4. Peter Kinnon on August 2, 2014 at 11:14 am

    Thanks for this article, Sarah.

    The very pervasive left/right brain myth has long been one of my pet peeves.

    The mass media seem to have a great predilection for pseudo-science, even in purportedly “science” TV programs..

    Another issue sure to raise my hackles is the mantra that nature is “fractal”. Which it very clearly ain’t.

    Grrr!

    • Sarah McKay on August 4, 2014 at 4:00 pm

      Peter. Agree! And let’s not even start on the new movie Lucy and the 10% myth!!

  5. Rama on March 24, 2015 at 8:20 am

    The way I see it there is a difference between common usage as a figure of speech vs scientific fact. I know what scientifically the notion of a left and right brained divide to simplify creative vs analytical though is ridiculous. However, I still do use the term “left brained” vs “right brained” to describe people. It is shorter to say “right brained” vs “someone who’s strengths are creative, intuitive, and artisitc thought processes”. I look at these terms as useful metaphorical figures of speech rather than scientific fact. Similar to telling someone they are as blind as a bat. Obviously not all bats are blind and some have a very keen sense of vision but the statement was used as a figure of speech vs accurate scientific fact.

    • Sarah McKay on March 24, 2015 at 10:27 am

      I agree to a certain extent. And if fact I used the term ‘left-brain thinking’ the other day as short-hand for analytical. There is always a place for a short-hand phrase, the problem arises when we treat that phrase as scientific fact. With the brain it gets pretty easy to do that as it’s so complex!

  6. Aine Mitchell on April 30, 2015 at 8:44 pm

    Hi Sarah, I have been reading with interest the neuroscience evidence on debunking the left/right hand brain myth. I have read that neuroscientists believe that neurological connections can be made right into adulthood and I am wondering what the impact of this is on teachings that you should play to your strengths and not focus on your weaknesses? I would love to have your view on this. Many thanks.

  7. Aine Mitchell on May 2, 2015 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you Sarah. It’s very interesting and one I hope to explore further. From the development world a lot of the teachings over the past 15 years have been about focusing only on strengths. With the newer research from neuroscience I think it is worth exploring further. As I work in the field of coaching and leadership development I would love to be able to apply the research from neuroscience into practice and ensure we are not upholding any urban myths. Thanks again.

    • Sarah McKay on May 5, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      You’re so welcome! So much great neuroscience that is applicable for coaching too. I’ll be looking forward to sharing more with you Aine.

  8. Marg on December 13, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    My belief is that the brain operating from its left & right hemispheres is in fact the Masculine brain…the control centre for the human, mortal body, which takes its info from the Nervous System (the system of fear…it’s very nervous). This is a process of duality (left and right sides) that employs the spinal canal for its means of delivery. The creative Feminine brain, which is increasing its presence, operates through the middle channel of the brain when we’ve overcome duality. This is a process of unity that employs a central energetic spinal channel that delivers pure energy. Evolution is diminishing our fears, and thus dissolving the dual nature of our bodies. The left and right hemispheres are moving into communion. The fearful Masculine brain supports chemical reactivity, dis-ease, aging and death…destruction. The loving Feminine brain supports ease, youth and immortality…creation. And this is happening within our bodies NOW! It only requires a shift in perception to see it.

  9. martha on January 3, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    Ok then have you read “My Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolte Taylor PhD
    a trained brain scientist had a stroke and records what went on following the stroke and during her recovery.. Her “left brain” was broken (no speech, understanding of speech, sound etc) but her right brain functioned… maybe read it???

    • Sarah McKay on January 4, 2016 at 10:33 am

      Yes Martha I have read the book. The problem with Jill’s account (besides that fact it is an anecodote from a wonderful storyteller) is that she is describing her experience of acute brain injury. She could have had similar experiences regardless of the location of her stroke. Some excellent critiques of her talk and its problems can be found here: http://westallen.typepad.com/idealawg/2008/04/some-critical-t.html

  10. Michelle Wilson on February 4, 2016 at 5:23 pm

    Hi Sarah, loved your article … came upon it as I was researching horizontal integration of left & right brain and vertical integration, from primitive responses to ‘mature’. Im a 3rd year education student and am looking at how this information impacts on the way we teach and learn. The lecture was on Brain Theory and Neuroplasticity. (a very basic one) What is the scope of ‘integration of left & right brain’ would this be referring to the myth you are debunking? or different functions of left and right? Thanks

  11. Left Brain vs. Right Brain | leahgranucci on March 9, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    […] McKay, S. (2013). The Myth of the Creative-Right vs Analytical-Left Brain: Debunked. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://yourbrainhealth.com.au/left-brain-right-brain-myth/ […]

  12. Anna Phillips on June 11, 2016 at 10:01 pm

    Fascinating article, Sarah, thank you. After 16 years of doctoral and masters studies and teaching in higher education, I’ve started a digital SLR camera course, only to find that I understand but can’t adequately translate the classroom lessons into photos that reflect what I learned. I thought it was the left/right brain issue, but perhaps it’s simply because I’ve tended to “live in my head” rather than engage in practical activities requiring coordination between the mental and practical.
    Are there any neurological explanations for this conundrum? Thanks, Anna

  13. […] trying to shatter other theories in which they know nothing of. Neuroscientists agree with him. Reply With Quote […]

  14. Russell Booth on November 16, 2016 at 3:46 am

    I’ve done research on why the MBTI type doesn’t matter as far as saying every ESFJ is not the same as me,that’s my archetype.
    I’ve focussed more on brain lateralization with myself & I’ve had to find out why people of the same type hasn’t even liked me,it has come to my attention that I don’t place great importance on say a persons skin colour that say a more right brained ESFJ probably does.
    I focus more on what sort of person they are (i.e. personality,etc) than what their colour is,I am 66% left brained so I have to find out why I don’t focus on the same things as they do (i.e. height & colour) so I’ve even had to find out why some ESFJ’s are different to me – they are more right brained than me !!!!

  15. Laurence on February 15, 2017 at 4:53 am

    I agree with Rama, I always knew Betty Edwards was being figurative when describing her theory ; which is actually a life changing book. There is definitely a different access when doing something creative versus something that requires thought or intellect. Creativity is free thinking whereas intellect requires concentration. Even temporal (time) perception is effected. Only activity I have found that combines the two “hemispheres” is reading for pleasure.

  16. Shermie Garcia on April 24, 2019 at 4:53 am

    Thanks for such kind of informative post with ‘right-brained’ vs ‘left-brained’. Is it really creativity or analytical depends on this? If yes, then I’ve cleared which type of my personality.

  17. Jay Somasundaram on December 20, 2019 at 10:24 pm

    Iain McGilchrist has written a fascinating and deeply scholarly book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’ . His presents wide-ranging evidence of how information is processed differently by mirror areas in each hemisphere. He then connects it to how Western philosophy evolved. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Master_and_His_Emissary).

    His thesis has similarities to but distinct differences to both the task positive and default mode networks (https://www.pnas.org/content/102/27/9673.full) , and Kahneman’s Slow and Fast (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking,_Fast_and_Slow).

  18. Paul on February 10, 2020 at 3:26 pm

    This needs to be spread to more small-town USA schools. In the small and rural town I grew up in, schools accepted that people grew up to be more left-brained/right-brained and it’s so unfortunately coincidental that these schools naturally gave girls the impression that they were ‘right-brained’. These girls would go on to believe that their future was already laid out for them in the ‘right-brained’ world and I don’t think a single female from my graduating class went on to do something in Engineering at first (a class size of 200 ). Some of them became engineers or went into the ‘left-brained’ world anyways during or after college but they all shared the same frustration – why they were brainwashed into thinking the ‘right-brained’ path was their destiny. It seems like more urban school systems have mostly done away with this mentality but it still persists in a surprising amount of schools across rural USA.

    • Sarah McKay on February 21, 2020 at 4:39 am

      That’s a terrible outcome from this myth! I should add your comment into the problems with this outdated notion.

  19. Jeanette on May 5, 2020 at 11:36 am

    As I was growing up if you were left handed you were forced to be right handed thank goodness this practice 21 year old and is left handed and very creative. I am very interested in how the brain works.Although I have A neurological disease. I am aware it must have impact on my brain.When studying it takes longer that most people,as I am getting older my spelling is getting worse.

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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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