Print Edition: November 13, 2013
You’re probably familiar with the left brain / right brain idea; according to this theory, the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for everything logical and analytic, and the right hemisphere lays claim to anything creative, emotional, or intuitive. This split-brain theory was developed in part by psychologist Roger Sperry in the 1980s, who won a Nobel prize for his work. Nowadays, any procrastinating student can find an app or quiz that promises to tell users which half of the brain they favour. Are you a creative or an analytic? Are you logical or are you intuitive? Are you a Vulcan or a human?
But no matter where you think you fall on the scale between the two extremes, recent research done at the University of Utah is attempting to debunk this simplistic view.
The resulting research article, published in the open-access and peer-reviewed online journal PLOS one, studied the patterns of over 1000 resting brain scans from around the world. They found that subjects didn’t seem to favour one side of the brain over the other during the scans, meaning that people can’t really be classified as left-brainers or right-brainers.
“In popular reports, ‘left-brained’ and ‘right-brained’ have become terms associated with both personality traits and cognitive strategies,” the study reads. “[A] more consistent schema might include left-dominant connections associated with language and perception of internal stimuli, and right-dominant connections associated with attention to external stimuli.”
Jared Nielsen, a graduate student and one of the authors on the study, expanded on this in an interview with LiveScience.
“It is not the case that the left hemisphere is associated with logic or reasoning more than the right,” he said. “Also, creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left.”
While it seems easy enough to label the split-brain theory as outdated, Dr. Tamara Watson cautions against moving from one simplistic theory to another. She’s a researcher in visual neuroscience at University of Western Sydney.
In an article for The Conversationalist, she notes that the theory itself has been distilled into a simplified idea that doesn’t necessarily reflect the original research findings – simplified ideas that we are all too eager to jump on and propagate in the instant consumer world of the internet.
“[The response to the recent study] demonstrates one thing very clearly: as much as neuroscience captures the imagination of many, progress in the area is often not well understood and neuroscientists don’t seem to be doing a good job of conveying their work to a wider audience,” she notes.
Dr. Christian Jarrett, another psychologist, agrees – not just in terms of the right / left brain theory, but in terms of science journalism as a whole.
“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 categorize languages and people as right-brained or left,” he says in Psychology Today. “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.”