Have you ever heard people say that they tend to be more of a right-brain or left-brain thinker? From books to television programs, you've probably heard the phrase mentioned numerous times or perhaps you've even taken an online test to determine which type best describes you. Given the popularity of the idea of "right brained" and "left brained" thinkers, it might surprise you learn learn that this idea is little more than a myth.
What Is Left Brain - Right Brain Theory?
According to the theory of left-brain or right-brain dominance, each side of the brain controls different types of thinking. Additionally, people are said to prefer one type of thinking over the other. For example, a person who is "left-brained" is often said to be more logical, analytical, and objective, while a person who is "right-brained" is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective.
In psychology, the theory is based on what is known as the lateralization of brain function. So does one side of the brain really control specific functions? Are people either left-brained or right-brained? Like many popular psychology myths, this one grew out of observations about the human brain that were then dramatically distorted and exaggerated.
The right brain-left brain theory originated in the work of Roger W. Sperry, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981. While studying the effects of epilepsy, Sperry discovered that cutting the corpus collosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) could reduce or eliminate seizures.
However, these patients also experienced other symptoms after the communication pathway between the two sides of the brain was cut. For example, many split-brain patients found themselves unable to name objects that were processed by the right side of the brain, but were able to name objects that were processed by the left-side of the brain. Based on this information, Sperry suggested that language was controlled by the left-side of the brain.
Later research has shown that the brain is not nearly as dichotomous as once thought. For example, recent research has shown that abilities in subjects such as math are actually strongest when both halves of the brain work together. Today, neuroscientists know that the two sides of the brain work together to perform a wide variety of tasks and that the two hemispheres communicate through the corpus collosum.
"No matter how lateralized the brain can get, though, the two sides still work together," science writer Carl Zimmer explained in an article for Discover magazine. "The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the words, for example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is actually more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress."
In one study by researchers at the University of Utah, more 1,000 participants had their brains analyzed in order to determine if they preferred using one side over the other. The study revealed that while activity was sometimes higher in certain important regions, both sides of the brain were essentially equal in their activity on average.
“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. It seems to be determined more connection by connection," explained the study's lead author Dr. Jeff Anderson.
While the idea of right brain / left brain thinkers has been debunked, its popularity persists. So what exactly did this theory suggest?
The Right Brain
According to the left-brain, right-brain dominance theory, the right side of the brain is best at expressive and creative tasks. Some of the abilities that are popularly associated with the right side of the brain include:
- Recognizing faces
- Expressing emotions
- Reading emotions
The Left Brain
The left-side of the brain is considered to be adept at tasks that involve logic, language and analytical thinking. The left-brain is often described as being better at:
- Critical thinking
So Why Do People Still Talk About Right-Brain, Left-Brain Theory?
Researchers have demonstrated that right-brain/left-brain theory is a myth, yet its popularity persists. Why? Unfortunately many people are likely unaware that the theory is outdated. Today, students might continue to learn about the theory as a point of historical interest - to understand how our ideas about how the brain works have evolved and changed over time as researchers have learned more about how the brain operates.
While over-generalized and overstated by popular psychology and self-help texts, understanding your strengths and weaknesses in certain areas can help you develop better ways to learn and study. For example, students who have a difficult time following verbal instructions (often cited as a right-brain characteristic) might benefit from writing down directions and developing better organizational skills. The important thing to remember if you take one of the many left brain/right brain quizzes that you will likely encounter online is that they are entirely for fun and you shouldn't place much stock in your results.
Want to learn more about the brain?
- Do We Really Only Use 10 Percent of Our Brain?
- How Big Is the Brain?
- Why Do You Get "Brain Freeze"?
- What Is Brain Plasticity?
- How Many Neurons Are in the Brain?
More Information and Resources
Severed Corpus Collosum: Scientific American Frontiers
Watch this fascinating video that demonstrates the effects of severing the corpus collosum.
The Big Similarities & Quirky Differences Between Our Left and Right Brains: Discover Magazine
A closer look at how the left brain and right brain differ and how they work together.
The Left-Brain, Right-Brain Quiz: About.com-Homework Tips
About.com's Guide to Homework Help, Grace Fleming, has created a fun quiz to help you determine your "brain type" with the goal of improving your study habits and academic skills. Take the right brain-left brain quiz to learn more. She also offers some great study advice for students who are supposedly left-brained and right-brained.
Nielsen, J. A., Zielinski, B. A., Ferguson, M. A., Lainhart, J. E., & Anderson, J. S. (2013). An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging. <i>PLOS One</i>. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071275
Rogers, M. (2013). Researchers debunk myth of "right brain" and "left-brain" personality traits. University of Utah, Office of Public Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071275