Are you "left-brained" or "right-brained?" If you are curious about the answer, or you're not sure whether these terms are part of a larger myth, you're in the right place! This page is all about the left brain vs. right brain myth.
Is "Left Brain Vs. Right Brain" a Myth?
Popular culture has this idea that people are either “left-brained” or “right-brained”. This doesn’t mean that anyone’s suggesting that some people don’t use all of their brains. For most people, identifying as "left-brain dominant" or "right-brain dominant" is more about trying to describe how we think and behave.
It’s almost become a way to describe someone’s personality or style of thinking, more than anything else.
How the "Left Brain" and "Right Brain" Work
This popular theory is actually based on a ton of psychological science, even if that science is slightly out of date now. Take Sperry’s (1975) suggestion that each hemisphere has a “specialized form of intellect”, which he believed explained why each of us may learn in different ways. Or Gazzaniga’s (1998) assertion that the left brain is “quite dominant for major cognitive activities, such as problem-solving” and so, doesn’t need the other half of the brain to function!
These split-brain studies definitely contributed to the idea that left-brained people are completely different to right-brained people, and may even have led to the widely held view that left-brained people are somehow smarter or better than right-brained people.
But not all psychologists or neurological studies support the idea that which side of your brain is more dominant can determine personality traits or how you think – or even that you have a dominant side.
The Science of the Split Brain
There is a general assumption that everyone’s brain works asymmetrically – that is, one side is used more than the other.
Tons of studies have looked at handedness (for example, if you’re right or left-handed) as evidence of this. An interesting side note: the weird part is that the left side of your brain tends to control the right side of your body. And vice versa. So, if you’re right-handed, you’re more likely to be left-brain dominant. Or so the theory goes.
Studies that have looked at how the brain functions have led to the belief that the left hemisphere and right hemisphere do completely different things, this is known as “brain lateralization”. The idea is that the right hemisphere and left hemisphere of the brain both have different functions and are basically separate, even if they “talk” to each other via the corpus callosum (Goldie, 2016). The left side of your brain is believed to be responsible for things like: language, speech, comprehension, and motor control. While the right side of your brain is thought to be more involved in creative and emotional processes (Corballis, 2014).
This has, over time, translated into the popular culture theory that left-brained people and right-brained people behave and think differently – and it all has to do with which side of your brain is more dominant.
Left Brain Dominant Traits
There are different takes on what it means to be left-brain dominant, but thankfully, the overall take away message is that having a left-brain dominance isn’t all good or all bad. It’s a bit like being able to define your strengths and weaknesses, and knowing how to make them work to your advantage.
Jobs for Left-Brained People
From an employment perspective, some theorize that being left-brain dominant means you’re better at listening, enjoy working with facts and figures, and prefer your own company. In fact, some career services and sites suggest that there might even be specific jobs which are more suited to left-brained people. Possible jobs for left-brained people include working in the military, law enforcement, and science-based roles.
Other popular claims infer that identifying as left-brained affects aspects of your personality, which include being seen as cold, analytical, unemotional, detail-orientated, practical, and great at problem-solving.
Right Brain Dominant
So, what does it mean to be right-brain dominant? Just as with left-brained individuals, it’s neither all good or all bad – although, this might depend on your perception of what a right-brain dominant person is like and if that feels right to you.
Jobs for Right-Brained People
From an employment perspective, some theorize that being right-brain dominant means you’re likely to be emotionally in tune with yourself and those around you, empathetic, creative and artistic, and generally great at expressing yourself. Boundaries mean less to right-brained people, and as such they might lean towards jobs where they’re able to do their own thing, such as being a designer, artist, writer, or inventor.
Again, there is a popular idea that right-brained people have specific characteristics or personality traits that enable them to be more emotional, sociable, and creative.
Criticisms of Left Brain vs. Right Brain Theory
Perhaps the most compelling criticism of the left brain vs right brain theory is the relatively new suggestion that particular brain functions (such as language processing) are not necessary only carried out in specific area(s) of the brain. What this mean is that rather than one part of the brain being entirely responsible for, say, processing speech – what happens is maybe more holistic than that. The brain actually works as a whole; with no single thought or process happening in isolation.
Interestingly, this theory may have come about because of studies looking at neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to adapt) and the effects of brain damage.
Studies have literally proven instances when people with missing sections of their right hemisphere have learned to process emotion. People with missing bits from their left hemisphere are still able to process speech and language. OK, so these people with damage to their brains might not perform these functions as well as the average person – but they provide compelling evidence that, actually, how we think or what we are capable of has nothing to do with which side of our brain is more “dominant”.
Maybe a less scientific, but more relatable assessment of the left-brain vs right-brain argument, is the simple fact that many people identify with both left-brained and right-brained characteristics or traits. The reality is that we probably use whichever side of our brain (left or right) that is best suited to meet the demand of whatever it is we’re doing. So, when you’re having a conversation with a friend who’s struggling with their personal life – you’re more likely to tap into your empathetic right brain. Whereas, if you’ve been asked to run some statistical analysis, you’re definitely going to need some left-brain power!
Corballis, M.C., 2014. Left brain, right brain: facts and fantasies. PLoS biology, 12(1).
Gazzaniga, M.S., 1998. The split brain revisited. Scientific American, 279(1), pp.50-55.
Goldie J. The implications of brain lateralisation for modern general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2016;66(642):44-5. doi: 10.3399/bjgp16X683341
Sperry, R.W., 1975. Left-brain, right-brain. Saturday Review, 2(23), pp.19-25.