2014 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?

[ print ]

Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London; Co-author, The Learning Brain
Left-Brain/Right-Brain

Most people will have heard about the left-brain/right-brain idea. Maybe they have been told they're too 'left-brained' or want to be more 'right-brained'. The idea has made it into everyday parlance, has infiltrated schools everywhere, sells a lot of self-help books, and has even been used as the basis of scientific theories, for example with regards to gender differences in the brain. Yet it is an idea that makes no physiological sense.

Scientific lingo about how the two sides of the brain—the hemispheres—function has permeated mainstream culture, but the research is often wildly over-interpreted. The notion that the two hemispheres of the brain are involved in different 'modes of thinking' and that one hemisphere dominates over the other has become widespread, in particular in schools and the workplace. There are numerous websites where you can find out whether you are left-brained or right-brained and that offer to teach you how to change this.

This is pseudo-science and is not based on knowledge of how the brain works. While it is true that the brain is made up of two hemispheres and one hemisphere is often initially active before the other during actions, speech and perception, both sides of the brain work together in almost all situations, tasks and processes. The hemispheres are in constant communication with each other and it simply is not possible for one hemisphere to function without the other hemisphere 'joining in', except in certain rare patient populations. In other words, you are not right or left-brained. You use both sides of the brain.

Some people have proposed that education currently favours left-brain modes of thinking, which are supposed to be logical, analytical and accurate, while not putting enough emphasis on right-brain modes of thinking, which are supposed to be creative, intuitive, emotional and subjective. Certainly education should involve a wide variety of tasks, skills, learning and modes of thinking. However, it is just a metaphor to refer to these as right-brain or left-brain modes. Patients who have had a lesion in their right hemisphere are not devoid of creativity. Patients with a damaged left hemisphere might be unable to produce language (which relies on the left hemisphere in over 90% of the population) but can still be analytical.

Whether left-brain/right-brain notions should influence the way people are educated is highly questionable. There is no validity in categorizing people in terms of their abilities as either a left-brain or a right-brain person. In terms of education, such categorization might even act as an impediment to learning, not least because it might be interpreted as being innate or fixed to a large degree. Yes, there are large individual differences in cognitive strengths. But idea that people are left-brained or right-brained needs to be retired.