A well-known term among psychologists, scientists, and even modern culture is “left-” and “right-“ brain. You may have heard one of these terms yourself, as a means of someone else describing you. Maybe someone remarked upon your amazing math skills, telling you how you’re a left-brain thinker; or maybe you painted an awe-inspiring picture, and someone remarked upon your right-brain thinking talents. You may have even taken a test to determine which brain hemisphere you’re more oriented to, if you’ve stumbled upon this topic on your own.
So, what do the terms ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’ mean?
Often times, ‘left-brained’ is a term used to describe logical, analytical, and calculating individuals; for example, scientists, mathematicians, lawyers, accountants, and most people who work with technology are all people who could be considered “left-brained”. On the other hand (or hemisphere), ‘right-brained’ is often used to describe creative, intuitive, and emotionally-based people; for example, artists, psychologists, graphic and interior designers, song-writers, as well as art therapists. “Left” and “right” brain are both phrases used for labelling, but also for scientific purposes. Scientists and neuropsychologists alike have studied the two hemispheres of the brain for over five decades; with the pioneer of the study, Roger Wolcott Sperry, being given a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work with split-brain research. Nobelprize.org summarizes Sperry’s work as, “…One way [Sperry] studied these functions was by examining patients whose hemisphere-connecting nerves had been severed to alleviate serious epilepsy. By the 1960s, he could reveal that the left hemisphere is more geared toward abstract and analytical thought, calculation, and linguistic ability, while the right hemisphere is more important for comprehending spatial patterns and complex sounds like music.”
If left-brained thinking is considered digital thinking, focusing on topics such as calculation and analysis of the world; and right-brained thinking is considered analog thinking, focusing on topics such as art and creativity, you might be wondering if it’s possible for a person to be both left-brain and right-brain thinkers, or mentally ambidextrous. You might think you’re mentally ambidextrous yourself, neither 100% left-brained, nor 100% right-brained. If so, don’t worry, there is such a thing as mental ambidexterity. In fact, most successful and innovative people practice using both their left and right brain hemispheres.
Statistician George E.P. Box said, “For the theory-practice iteration to work, the scientist must be, as it were, mentally ambidextrous; fascinated equally on the one hand by possible meanings, theories, and tentative models to be induced from data and the practical reality of the real world, and on the other with the factual implications deducible from tentative theories, models and hypotheses.”
Author F. Scott Fitzgerald says,” The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
While Box’s idea focuses on the mental ambidexterity of the scientist, and Fitzgerald’s idea focuses on two sides of an opposed system working together, practicing using both hemispheres of the brain is an important trait to possess for everyday life. Larry Schmitt of theinovogroup.com writes, “Mental ambidexterity is not just about holding two opposing ideas in mind at once. It is, instead, about thinking and behaving in two diametrically opposing ways depending on the situation. This is most often manifested as the operational excellence (efficiency) perspective and the business transformation (experimentation) perspective. The ability to be mentally ambidextrous is to be able to accommodate both the efficiency perspective and the experimentation perspective, and to know when and how to behave using the appropriate perspective.”
Schmitt gives a great example of how to use both brain hemispheres in business, but his example can also be translated in daily life. Both brain hemispheres can be used to create balance and accord; in relationships, business and career, personal perspective, problem-solving, as well as even with health. By practicing duo-hemisphere thinking, you can become a creative problem-solver, an analytical designer, a passionate calculator, or even able to balance when you use emotionally-charged thinking, and practice logical thinking. Even if you are skeptical to whether or not the brain hemispheres have any significance to your mental process, or if you fully believe that left and right brain thinking is scientifically provable, it is always important and imperative in every situation to act appropriately – you can always improve your reactivity and also your strengths, even if you’re not basing your behavior and mental process off of a hemisphere chart.
Even after learning all of this information about the left and right hemispheres of the brain, you may be asking yourself: does the opposing brain-hemisphere concept really exist? How is it possible that one side of my brain thinks in a certain way, while the other one behaves completely differently? Is it actually possible for one side of my brain to be dominant over the other?
Some people say that the idea of left-brain and right-brain thinking is a myth. Christopher Wanjek at LiveScience.com writes, “Now, scientists at the University of Utah have debunked the myth with an analysis of more than 1,000 brains. They found no evidence that people preferentially use their left or right brain. All of the study participants — and no doubt the scientists — were using their entire brain equally, throughout the course of the experiment. — The preference to use one brain region more than others for certain functions, which scientists call lateralization, is indeed real, said lead author Dr. Jeff Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service at the University of Utah. For example, speech emanates from the left side of the brain for most right-handed people. This does not imply, though, that great writers or speakers use their left side of the brain more than the right, or that one side is richer in neurons.”
What does this mean for Roger Sperry’s groundbreaking work on the brain hemispheres? Well, it might mean that his research is outdated. Considering the revolution of the mind and society as a whole since Sperry’s original experiment was conducted in the 1960’s, it wouldn’t be too surprising that humans now use both sides of their brains equally. Perhaps at one time, when people (and life) were far less complex, it was easier and made sense to put people into mental categories and labels. Each generation is born with different genes, different cells, and over time, a nearly completely different genetic and chemical makeup – their brains and mental processes being no exception. Considering Sperry’s work was conducted over 50 years ago, it might be time for a scientific update. Let’s put it into perspective like this: neuroscience was first emerging as a major field of study in the 1960’s, with experiments and theories such as Sperry’s being conducted and executed. We knew little about the brain, and neuroscience and neuropsychology began emerging, being met with many questions. However, we currently know much more about the brain than ever before: neuroscientists are now able to change the emotional makeup of memories, we understand how and why the brain works, and we are even able to conduct experiments that show that individuals may (or may not) use both sides of their brains equally. Times, ideas, and theories are constantly changing, and the brain hemispheres are no exception to this universal rule.
So maybe rather than a person’s characteristics being categorized into their dominant brain hemisphere, this can now be seen simply as their personality traits. It is more likely than not that individuals are merely more logic-oriented or creativity-focused, rather than using one hemisphere of their brain only. This evidence can also be found in taking a look at a brain hemisphere model chart; some (and most) people possess a mixture of the traits, characteristics, and skills listed on left and right brain charts. It is very rare, and often fictional, to find a person who completely fits into one category of a brain hemisphere. Some people are talented at math, but also very good at creating artistic pieces. Other people are very analytical, but can also use their imagination to varying extents. Cheri Cheng at counselheal.com confirms this idea, writing, “Everyone should understand the personality types associated with the terminology ‘left-brained’ and ‘right-brained’ and how they relate to him or her personally; however, 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,” said researcher Jared Nielsen.”
The general verdict is this: in the 1960’s, Sperry’s research may have been (and most likely was) true. However, in modern times, the idea of left and right brain thinking has been debunked. It is now more a matter of opinion, and what you wish to believe. The fact of the matter is; science, neuroscience, and psychology as a whole are consistently coming up with new ideas, facts, and information. Scientifically, what may be true today, could be proven incorrect tomorrow.