Brain Myths

Stories we tell about the brain and mind.

Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die

The left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die because it has become a powerful metaphor for different ways of thinking – logical, focused and analytic versus broad-minded and creative. Read More

Great article, Christan!

Great article, Christan!

The Master and his Emissary

I suggest reading "The Master and his Emissary, the Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World" by Iain McGilchrist.

Objection! The myth IS true (but only in part I confess)

As mentioned above the masterful "The Master and his Emissary" by Iain McGilChrist is an in-depth and incredibly well documented look into the nature of the hemispheres (and comprehensively researched and scientifically documented). The fact is the brain does have two hemispheres that are only connected by a relatively small bridge (why on earth should that be the case) and note that the majority of pathways in the corpus callosum are inhibitory pathways. What is true is that many myths do exist about the hemispheres that are false e..g creativity is likely more a FULL brain process than a right brain process (see Keith Sawyer's review of Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity). Yet the nature of the two hemispheres is very different and nothing could be more true as we do have two brains sitting in our skull which carry out functions very differently. The RSA animation which you can watch on youtube is a brilliant short summary of Ian McGilChrist's book (put in "The Divided Brain" in YouTube) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI

we have just one brain

Christian,

First up, let me say that was a very nice article. surely, though, the point is we have one brain. The connectivity between neural pathways is so complex, that I believe we get into "muddy" territory when trying to over-simplify ideas (such as right brain/left brain concepts).

That said, the various parts of the brain have been relatively well mapped out; so we can say with a degree of certainty about particular brain activity being dominant in specific zones.

Thanks for writing,
David

PS - interesting to hear Jonathan Sacks bring religion into a scientific debate. I'm always a little amused when religious figures use science to give credence to their faith, but that's another debate altogether!

Language is processed in the right hemisphere as well.

Hi,
I'm done research in the scientific literature of today for my BA-thesis on music and language in the brain. The idea that seems to pop up in this article is that the right hemisphere only does things like emphasis and intonation.
This is, however, not true. In fact I've found out that most of the important language areas in the left side of the brain are represented in the right hemisphere as well. For example, the areas of Wernicke (meaning of words) and Broca (grammar) aren't only activated by language in the left hemisphere, but on the same place in the right hemisphere as well (bilateral activation). Not to mention the areas of Herschl in which sounds get decided on whether it's a language sound, a musical sound or another kind of sound. This is near both ears.
It's gets even weirder, because it seems that not only language is busy there. Also music use the Broca areas (musical grammar) and there seems to be some evidence that the Wernicke area works with music as well. But I couldn't find information to really prove this idea about Wernicke.

Anyway, it /does/ seem to be the case that within these bilateral areas of Herschl and Broca music activates the right side slightly more and language the left side. This is, however, not yet statistically proven.

Hah...

Yep the left are at it again, clearly it's left-brainer propaganda from a left-brain biased point of view; that's a no brainer. =P

left brain/right brain

Its more probable that all people use both sides of their brains.Common perception is that logical "left brain" tasks are more intelligent and meatier than creative artistic endeavours.
But a right balance can work wonders..
A left brained person can learn music just to stimulate right brained characteristics and a right brained person can force to finish sudoku ouzzles to feed his left brain.

The right brain" big picture" specailists are hard to find.. because they constantly try to fit in the left brain friendly world.

The myth that's hard to kill

A few years ago I was tutoring first year psychology students. For their essay they had a choice of writing about hemispheric function or another topic (personality) and I was surprised at how many chose the neuroscience one which I thought would be perceived as a harder topic. The aim of the essay was to determine if students could sift the popular myths about hemispheric function from the scientific findings. Even though they were given assigned readings that specifically stated that popular myths about the artistic right brain and the logical left brain were not supported by research, a large number of students parroted these myths as if they were true. One egregious fellow even went so far as to completely make up a study that confirmed the myths were right after all! (I wasn't sure which was dumber: that he misunderstood the subject or that he thought that I would not get suspicious about his made up "research"!) Fortunately, the more able students did get the message. I'm still not sure why so many students found this so hard to understand. Some of them probably did not take the assignment very seriously and just repeated factoids that they had read. I suspect though that some of them were just not very bright. It probably takes a considerable amount of intellectual sophistication to grasp subtle concepts and reject intuitively appealing yet simplistic myths. The myths might persist because most people either do not make the intellectual effort to understand a more complex view when a simpler one is available or because the more complex view is too hard for some people to understand.

I'm curious here, and

I'm curious here, and seriously so. The "lazy students" notwithstanding, there is evidence in your post of assumptions that inhibit real knowing. For one, there is implied the notion that science and its studies are conclusive and ever-reliable, which, by evidence of science and both its process and evolution, is not the case. For another, simple/complex are value statements which do not constitute a reliable confirmation of not truth/truth. For another, "myth" does not equal "non-truth," but represents a means of apprehending how life occurs; it is likely non-literal, but not non-truth.

One of the virtues of a double-brain capacity, whatever its ultimate mechanical functioning turns out to be, is that we can aim to pin things down -- that is, delve for facts and interpretive truth -- while SIMULTANEOUSLY refusing to shut the door on possibility; we can hold paradox. That students pick up on myth is not necessarily a bad thing (and not necessarily evidence of stupidity), but an opportunity for deep teaching, for holding out in front of them the complexity of the world and what it means "to know." That this "line of uncertainty" is a decidedly difficult one for people to walk may be a reflection not of brain hemisphere dominance, so-called, but of a VALUE system that fails to emphasize qualities, curiosity, uncertainty as useful principles toward knowing the world and ourselves in it. For my part, when I hear "religious" or "mythologist" people tapping the door of "science," and, more rarely, vice versa, I celebrate the attempt, conscious or otherwise, to bring to life an integral and non-partisan paradigm and process. I am DEEPLY interested in that ... and further, anything short of this may come to be what we, in the future, call the ultimate "lazy."

Susan

Lazy students

"The myths might persist because most people either do not make the intellectual effort to understand a more complex view."

I'm guessing that the unexpected popularity of the neuroscience topic was due to students thinking, "Ah, a subject I already know lots about! I won't need to do much work for this one." Some of them probably didn't even get as far as the assigned readings.

Why should I believe this?

I would be more apt to believe this article if it were error-free. It has a couple vocabulary issues. Maybe the author needed to access his left brain a bit more? He failed to use the correct term for his very awkward phrase, 'an aha flash of insight', which is "epiphany"! Also, there is no such thing as a "chicken coup", unless chickens are smarter than we previously believed and are now planning some sort of hostile takeover. Chickens dwell in a chicken "coop".

Another problem with this article is that you're going to have a tough time convincing anyone of your point if you can't allow for some middle ground. How do you cross a canyon from Point A to Point B without a bridge? There is nothing persuasive about absolutes. To start the article by completely dismissing the left brain/right brain theory as a "myth" is to set yourself up for failure. The left and right brain are two separate hemispheres with differing roles that cooperate in an intricate fashion. Some people, however, favor one side or the other, hence they are left or right-brained. Others favor different sides for different tasks; these people are middle-brained. That concept was completely ignored.

thanks

Thanks, have corrected typo - "coup" to "coop".

Great! I'm finally apt to

Great! I'm finally apt to believe you.

I wouldn't say that the word

I wouldn't say that the word "myth" translates to "lie"- I took Dr. Jarrett's meaning as a package of beliefs that act together to provide cultural use. I also believe the accuracy of the myth to be highly in doubt. Then, he proceeded to talk about a lot of middle ground, actually, with interesting research on the differences that didn't accord well with the myth often, but offered a 'grain of truth'.

This from you: "Some people...favor one side or the other...[and some] people are middle-brained. That concept was completely ignored." Both these ideas were ignored because they're not true, or at least they're extremely poor descriptions of something we don't understand. First, we don't know what 'favoring' a side means physiologically, and as of now, we only know of brain damage and a few mental diseases to cause favoring one side over the other. You're speculating, and I think you're doing it using mythological personality characteristics of the hemisphere as a guide.

Secondly, middle-brained is a great slogan that we should paste right onto the top of the brain hemisphere mythos. Per Dr. Jarrett's point, we really don't know many details of what constitutes left- and right-brained thinking, let alone mixes of these types of thinking that forms a middle. We don't know what it means to favor parts or modules, either, at least not in a way the implies something about balance. It's more muddle-brained, actually, at this point.

Right brain-left brain differences. Yes, they are real!

May I recommend that you read, "My Stroke of Insight" by Jill Bolte Taylor or watch her Tedx talk.http://www.ted.com/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html
She is a neuroanatomist who had a stroke on the left side of her brain and documented her experiences which surely support that there is a big difference between how the two sides of the brain function. Better than lab studies. Actual experience. Highly recommended.

@Serena "Lab studies" are

@Serena

"Lab studies" are science, not mere anecdote, but that's not to say I disgregard your example. The point I make is that science studies many such examples so that special examples do not drown out the general principles. That is why your conclusion "better than lab studies" is completely wrong. Science is the best way of acquiring knowledge, any other approach, with the exception of logic in Philosophy (which I would argue forms part of Science anyway), leads not to knowledge but to the illusion of knowledge.

Dr. Hoo, if I may- the

Dr. Hoo, if I may- the split-brain studies and related studies show that there are tremendous variances in how individual brains work, how they respond to accidents, etc. So you're right.

What I want to mention is that an important corollary to your point is that an individual brain can tell us a great deal precisely because it is widely variant. Sometimes we just simply don't realize that a certain type of phenomenon or response is possible; we are early enough in the study of the brain to be able to use clues like individual results very aggressively to determine possibilities, and to gain insights from variance itself.

Interestingly, the woman with the damaged left brain at TED had a fairly common reaction, but a more common reaction to her expressed ecstasy, etc. is depression and higher levels of fear and stress. Suicide risk is far more common with broad left-side damage than right. One theory frames the reason in terms of the right hemisphere needing the left to provide a decision-making capability: that issues (sometimes termed exceptions) are brought up by the sensitive right hemisphere, and it relies on the process-centric modules on the left to resolve how to handle the exceptions. Without that input, things may get in suspended animation, if you will, and the lack of resolve on even simple issues causes stress, etc. In the speaker's case, the gestalt capability of the right side seemed to trump any such consideration. That's probably because of where her damage was: when we talk about brain damage, hemispheric talk can get useless pretty fast.

So your point is especially pertinent with this case. There is an important offset to the speaker's implied assertions about the right side that turns her story on its head a little, and makes the whole business healthily complex. I wish she would've done us the courtesy of that insight as well, so the hemispheric myth was aligned better with reality.

NOT THE FULL PICTURE

I am not usually moved to reply to blog articles. However, whilst I have great respect for Christian Jarrett and his many excellent articles, and book, this article does not give a complete multi-disciplinary review of current scientific understanding, and I disagree with its conclusions.

Any discussion of this area is incomplete without having read the seminal work by UK Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist "The Master and His Emissary". Many good video interviews and articles available online for a summary, but his book remains a superb integration of science and the evolution of human society. As Iain says, he expected some debates about his book, which is why he wrote 500 pages and included 2,500 references. But it makes fascinating and very thought provoking reading as a result.

His work matches the conclusions of US psychiatrists Dan Seigel and Allan Schore, amongst others, working from UCLA. Highly recommended to attend their conferences when they visit the UK or read any of their work. Again, much available online. Like Iain, they are involved through their ongoing clinical work in the practical application of these ideas in working with human beings, not just debating the statistical validity of a particular piece of research. Dan Seigel had a team of 10 interns search through 2000 articles to validate his recent 2nd release of The Developing Mind, and like Iain can debate publically and very articulately the depth of these ideas.

Both of these sources take in a very broad and thorough review of multi-discipinary scientific understanding, and present different conclusions to those presented here. There are fundamental differences but as ever the reality is not straightforward and not what might be expected.

The Importance of McGilchrist

I parallel your opinions about this work- I think it enormously important. The doctors you highlighted have done brilliant developmental hemispheric work- thanks for the reference.

The first half of Dr. McGilchrist's book is vital- once read, it's quite difficult to not model thought and followon behavior as at least partially an integration of two interdependent perspectives. It's a valuable synthesis of wide-ranging related neurology, anthropology, linguistics, and psychology. These are connected using relatively straightforward logic into a powerful argument for hemispheric dimensionality in behavior. Yet the scientists are almost as stridently coarse as the masses they castigate on the subject of, say, right- and left-brained thinking. It disappoints to see articles like this one that don't engage the subject either at the proper level of detail or with a spirit of inquiry. It's as if there's an overarching question of some kind about bilaterality that's been settled. The attitude seems to be that of showing examples of so many flawed ideas on bilaterality that the notion is assumed to be false carte blanche.

Hemisphere Schemisphere

A good critique of McGilchrist's work ran through comments at http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/split-brain-split-views-debat... , which was precipitated by this mixed review of McGilchrist's master work, The Master and His Emissary: http://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/02/21/divided-brain-divided-world/ . Dr. Jarrett weighed in at some point in appreciation of the mixed initial review, as I recall.

My own feelings somewhat parallel your own, Benjamin; I've articulated some of them at a long-winded post at http://www.reachtheright.com/2012/03/07/the-political-brain-1/ . The short version is that people outside hemispheric studies of various kinds- and I include many neurologists, psychologists, and other scientists in that count- are handling coarsely an important aspect of human psychology. There are therapeutic approaches based on hemispheric implications already that have great efficacy; further, there are many ideas present in McGilchrist's and other's work that bear the most careful consideration. Ultimately, there is a crux to the matter: that the choice was made evolutionarily, long before we were even a species, to divide brains into laterally-aligned clumps of modules, connected in a highly unintuitive way. Rationales for the continuing advantages of that choice, ancient and modern, are essential to unearth, yet the common approach by many scientists is to complain about crowdsourced speculations and deride the very subject of a great deal of good research.

A creative chips in...

Interesting article and subsequent comments - thank you. I'm a writer and I teach people how to stimulate/improve their creative thinking and idea generation. I use left brain/right brain terminology because it's a simple concept for people to grasp (as they're generally not really there for the neuroscience)and I'm always mindful to remind participants that one will use the whole brain in any creative endeavour but different parts for different tasks. However I'm very aware of the different "states" I'm in when executing different creative tasks. When I'm re-writing or plotting - I'm employing rational and logical creative problem solving and it "feels" completely different to when I'm in creative free fall and having blindingly, innovative ideas. And of course this is anecdotal but there's something going on that feels like left and right even if it technically isn't. Any thoughts?

Oxygen deprived, more active

I disagree with the theory that the right brain equals creativity and the left brain logic. I believe it is reversed. The right brain harbors pure logic and the left brain pure emotion. I believe that brain scans showing increased blood flow to right brain and left brain areas, actually indicate that the side showing less blood flow is being more active. The lack of oxygen in right brain or left brain thinking kick starts survival mechanisms that enhance the functions of dark parts of the brain to become stronger, or adjust.

The right brain - left brain paradigm will never die because it's not a myth

First of all, psychologists aren't medical doctors or neuroscientists. So, the study of the physical human brain is lacking. Secondly, the human mind does process in different parts of the physical brain. It all acts as one powerful unit if the neural pathways are all working properly. Is it literally left versus right? No. But the paradigm is real. Logic and creativity come from different parts of the brain. Although in each person, there is often overlap in areas such as speech.

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Christian Jarrett, Ph.D is the editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and staff writer on their magazine The Psychologist.

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