I’m getting a fed up with the right/left brain myth that became so ingrained in our culture. Rarely anyone outside of the scientific world is even questioning it, and it’s even more pronounced in our creative circles where people wear the “right-brained” label like a badge of honor.
I’m sure many people won’t agree with what I have to say on this topic, and even my best friends and most loyal readers might find this idea in opposition to their views.
But I cannot in good conscience support the story I feel is inaccurate and harmful.
Let’s just get to the point right away.
You’re not right brained (or left brained)
Those terms do not describe the truth of who you are. And even if you approach them figuratively, they are still limiting the vision you have of yourself.
This theory of people having a dominant brain hemisphere has actually been scientifically disproven.
“It is not the case that the left hemisphere is associated with logic or reasoning more than the right,” Anderson told LiveScience. “Also, creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left.”
If you want a more scientific take, here’s a longer quote directly from the original paper on this study of over 1000 individuals:
“In popular reports, “left-brained” and “right-brained” have become terms associated with both personality traits and cognitive strategies, with a “left-brained” individual or cognitive style typically associated with a logical, methodical approach and “right-brained” with a more creative, fluid, and intuitive approach. Based on the brain regions we identified as hubs in the broader left-dominant and right-dominant connectivity networks, 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.
Yet our analyses suggest that an individual brain is not “left-brained” or “right-brained” as a global property, but that asymmetric lateralization is a property of individual nodes or local subnetworks, and that different aspects of the left-dominant network and right-dominant network may show relatively greater or lesser lateralization within an individual.”
So, there’s that. There was no actual research that confirmed left or right brain dominance, ever.
The source of the myth was research done by Roger Sperry in 1960s on epileptic patients who had the connective tissue between the brain hemispheres—corpus callosum—surgically severed. This resulted in identifying in which hemisphere certain functions of the brain were located in individuals with a serious brain injury. This was later misinterpreted into into the right-brain or left-brain dominance theory in healthy people that we’re familiar with today.
But what about that brain scientist who had a stroke?
You may have seen the TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor that went viral, “My stroke of insight”. It’s a very inspiring account of what happens to a person as her brain functions are turning off one by one, and I can’t watch it without tearing up a little every time.
But, fascinating as it is, it doesn’t really prove any particular point, and a lot of what she says as she’s describing brain functions is contrary to the brain research I linked above, and more metaphorical than factual (as other scientists who critiqued her talk pointed out).
She described her own subjective experience of the event, but we don’t know the factual data—we don’t even know for sure that her entire left brain was incapacitated, or what her experience would be if this had happened in her right side of the brain (it might have been a very similar experience—I hardly doubt she would take out a sudoku puzzle and go about her day).
What we do know is that she had a hemorrhage that caused certain parts of her brain to shut off, and she described what she had seen, heard and sensed as a result.
The areas that were affected by her stroke resulted in her not having a sense of her own body (which made her feel so expansive), not being able to identify letters and numbers, and not being able to understand or produce spoken language.
If anything, her experience proves that we absolutely do need the “left brain” centers that were affected by her stroke if we want to create anything.
How would you do your craft without a sense of your own extremities, pattern recognition or language? We’d all be flailing around like newborns, unable to even form clear ideas of what we want, let alone do it.
Notice the difference between the experience of Dr. Taylor, and your own experience as you’re creating. Yes, you probably lose the track of time and your surroundings, being enthralled by the art that is taking form in front of you, but there’s so much that goes on in the background that you take for granted. Your “left brain” is working very hard to create this experience.
So, if there really is no proof of brain hemisphere dominance, why is it so pervasive?
Some people have a stake in this term
There are businesses that use the term “right brained”, and their marketing is based on the premise there is such a thing as a right brained person. To admit that there isn’t, would mean being forced to change their branding and marketing, after having already invested so much in it.
I’m fine with branding, as long as we all understand that it’s just that. It’s not scientifically verified truth.
Those folks are doing wonderful and useful work. I don’t have a problem with their teachings or their message. I have a problem with fake science.
The term “right-brained” is not a biological nor a psychological thing, it’s marketing.
Feel free to use this word if you like it so much, just please be aware of what it really means. It invites people to quickly self-identify as ideal customers. When you hear something is for right-brainers, you pay attention. You label it as potentially important, because you’ve been (publicly or internally) calling yourself right-brained for a while.
That’s exactly the point.
The “right brained vs. left brained” has become a movement that shapes our vision of ourselves and the world, and I’m of the opinion it’s not for the better. The reason I feel so is that I think it’s creating the artificial divide between “us the right brained creative people” and “them, the left brained analytical people”.
Artists versus engineers.
Writers versus accountants.
Musicians versus lawyers.
Yoga teachers versus surgeons.
Every time you create an artificial divide, you end up with a bunch of people who don’t belong anywhere.
There’s been so much talk about introverts and extroverts, but little is said of the group that’s actually the largest of them: ambiverts. It’s so much easier for humans to deal with polarities and absolutes.
What do you mean, there’s a middle?
What do you mean, most people fall into the middle?
It’s not convenient for sure, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to the truth. (The measuring instruments in psychology are designed so that the majority of people end up average, and few people fall to the extreme ends of the scale.)
It’s the same with so called creative vs. logical people.
Implying that people who are imaginative have poor analytical skills, and vice versa, is short sighted at best, and insulting at worst.
One doesn’t exclude the other, and when they both work in harmony at a very high capacity, we get such gems of the human species such as Nikola Tesla, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Albert Einstein whose writings confirm that they leaned heavily on both their free imagination and their logical faculties.
These examples show us what is possible when all our abilities are cultivated and allowed to flourish.
I think that creativity does not equal just imagination. I believe that creativity happens at the intersection of our imaginative and analytical abilities.
My definition of creativity is any form of thinking and doing that results in an idea or object that has never existed before in that exact form. It’s not exclusive to the arts—in fact, it’s crucial in other domains such as engineering, medicine and even politics.
I don’t believe that the majority of so called “right-brained” people are so bad at logic, math and technology as they might think.
Creativity happens at the intersection of our imaginative and analytical abilities.
The problem is, of course, in the way we’re educated
“Choices” such as creative versus logical are artificial.
We might have grown on the opposite sides of the planet, but I bet your experience was at some point similar to my story. For the first 14 years of my life, I haven’t seen any problem in being good at both sciences and arts. There was nothing weird about that—in fact, I wasn’t even the only person in my class with this supposedly “unusual” inclination. The problems started when we had to decide which high school to attend.
In Croatia, high schools are highly specialized and tailored to specific occupations. Kids are forced to choose a path that will determine the rest of their life—their higher education and their career—before most of us even know what we want to do with ourselves. And once you’re in school, you’re stuffed into a program with no flexibility at all. There are no elective subjects, which is probably because our entire educational system is in shambles, with schools being under-staffed, the classes over-populated, the curriculums obsolete, and buildings too small.
When I found myself in front of such a choice, I was distraught. I was highlighting my catalogue of schools in the area trying to pick one that would be best for my set of interests and skills, but it was so damn hard, because none of them was exactly right for me.
My top choices were:
- Art school with only the most basic science classes.
- Electrical & computer engineering school with no art classes whatsoever.
- Grammar school with a mix of science, arts, and humanities, but only on a theoretical level—no actual hands-on work.
After weighing my options, I chose the latter, in effect postponing my decision by another 4 years. Once those 4 years were up, I wasn’t any smarter than before. When the time came to decide once more, there was no more middle ground for the multi-passionate folks like me. No multi-disciplinary programs. Just a limited choice of boxes to fit yourself into, even if it meant cutting certain parts of yourself off in order to fit inside.
I make it sound uncomfortable and painful because it actually felt this way for me (this in turn triggered a depressive episode). But I try to learn from my pain, and if there’s anything good that came out of that experience, it’s this:
I’m super passionate about alternative schooling and education reforms
I’m passionate about programs that use artistic techniques to teach abstract concepts and technical skills, and that make a point of raising children to become wholesome beings.
I’m passionate about helping people identify themselves as creative and capable, to recognize their strengths and to not feel held back by their own perceived “weaknesses”.
I don’t believe people are born with a “math gene”, or an “art gene”, or a “languages gene” that determines their ability to excel in either. In fact, I am convinced that a good teacher can teach even those that consider themselves as seriously lacking in “talent”.
I believe that “talent” is also a myth, or at least seriously misunderstood.
I get annoyed at people who throw around the word “talent” as an excuse to not even try to learn, and to play down someone else’s hard work. (“I wish I was as talented as you” is one of the worst things you can say to an artist, even though it may sound like a compliment on the surface. I assure you, it’s not.)
I believe that anyone is able to learn anything, as long as they have the motivation to learn, and access to quality learning resources and/or a good mentor. Not everyone learns best in the same way though, and that is where our education fails us the most.
It’s not too late, though. The old stories you’ve been telling yourself throughout your life don’t have to be limiting you anymore.
Embrace your role in the creative business revolution
It’s true that as a collective, we lack creativity and imaginativeness in our life, educational system and in our professions. I welcome this movement that aims to infuse everyone’s life with creativity, and I wholeheartedly agree that this is making the world more beautiful and more humane.
I’m so glad that creatives are stepping up and claiming their place in the business world, and not only that, but also teaching their skills to the rest of the society that was unfortunately trained out of them.
But I also think that the majority of people lack the analytical and critical thinking skills they need in order to be more empowered and self-reliant, and that everyone would benefit tremendously if we were taught how to think like a scientist and how to manage our finances from an early age, in a way that makes it fun and interesting.
Since learning those skills seems boring or scary (or both), most people avoid learning them until they absolutely have to (for example, when they start their own business and realize they don’t know how to calculate profit).
It doesn’t need to be boring or scary.
As the time goes by, I’m sure we will have many other voices giving their own unique take on these topics that will make them palatable for a wider audience.
“I’m a creative type, I’m just not good with numbers” is a cop out.
One does not exclude the other, yet often I hear both “artsy people” and “numbers people” say something along those lines, like it’s a perfectly good explanation. We can still keep our creative brilliance alive and learn how to wrangle with finances, technology, business development, marketing, and more.
What we don’t need is dumbing things down to avoid the “hard stuff”.
Creative people are not stupid. None of this business stuff is too esoteric for us to grasp. The problem is that a lot of resources were written in a language that sound like gibberish to people who don’t have a degree in business or marketing.
The identity trap
The problem I have with saying “I’m right brained” is that the underlying message is “I’m not good with left-brained stuff”, and this turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that’s the record you’re running at the back of your mind every time you grapple with a spreadsheet or try to change the background on your blog, no wonder your brain refuses to cooperate until you finally give up and say “This is too difficult—I’ll never get it!”
If you started seeing yourself as a person who can learn whatever you set your mind to, you would have a much easier time.
(Enter cheesy quote:)
Welcome your inner problem-solver
Instead of focusing on all the ways you’re inadequate, focus on things you already can do that we traditionally associate with logic, memory and analytical thinking. Remember all the small ways you use logic in your day to day life, without even thinking consciously, because it’s second nature to you.
All of this is proof that you’re capable of conquering any skill you want to have.
(And if you’re the sciency type and find the imaginative side more difficult, do the opposite—remember all the instances when you displayed creativity, visioning and intuitive understanding in the past, from your early childhood onward).
I’m not suggesting you should switch your career, or start playing chess, or in any way force yourself into another mold. Keep doing what you enjoy doing. Keep doing what feels natural and brings happiness and meaning to your life. Keep offering your unique gifts. Don’t worry about being more like this person or that person in order to be more “whole”.
I’m asking you to eliminate the negative perception of yourself that you’re holding in your mind as long as you keep using the excuse “but I’m a creative type”.
There was a time when we were all terrible at what we now love doing, as well. Who doesn’t cringe when they look back at their early work? But we went past that stage either because we were oblivious to how bad we are at it, or because we were so intensely motivated to become better.
There is so much potential in you. You are capable of so much more than you think you are. Your learning and growth is not stopping anytime soon, no matter what your age is.
With love for you and your brilliant mind,
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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