You’ve likely heard that the right side of the brain is more creative than the left. It’s a widespread myth that has perpetuated for years. It’s talked about on television programs and in mainstream books. You can even take dozens of quizzes to tell you which one is your dominant side.
People who score on the right-brain spectrum are the more creative types, with strengths in thoughtfulness, intuitiveness, and subjectivity. Conversely, left-brainers are the thinkers, with strong skills in analytics, objectivity, and logic. While this is a widely held pop-culture belief, is there any proof that some people are right-brain creatives and others are left-brain logicians?
History of the myth
Right-brain versus left-brain thinking is based on the psychological concept of the lateralization of brain function. The brain has two hemispheres with each performing several roles. And there is some divided functionality. For example, the right hemisphere controls the muscles on the left side of the body and vice versa.
After a treatment for epilepsy developed split-brain surgeries, scientists began studying each hemisphere individually. Cognitive neurologist and Nobel Prize winner Roger W. Sperry was one of those researchers, and his studies are largely responsible for the myth as we know it today. As part of a study treating refractory epilepsy, patients had their corpus callosum surgically severed. Composed of tightly wound nerve bundles, the corpus callosum is how each hemisphere of the brain connects and communicates with the other. When Sperry cut this communication pathway, he noted patients experienced other symptoms, such as being unable to process specific things when viewed from either the right eye or the left.
Sperry noted patients could not “see” words when shown through their left eye. He concluded that the left side of the brain was responsible for language, specifically speaking. However, while patients couldn’t articulate seeing words, they could choose the object without understanding why they picked it up. Through more experiments, he determined the functions affected by each side of the brain, creating the characteristics we associate with being right or left-brained.
What does the research say?
However, further research proves that the brain is not as dichotomous as Sperry’s theory shows. Take math as an example. While we credit math with being a left-brain logical-thinking skill, math requires using several different types of thinking. It uses multiple areas of the brain across both hemispheres.
Language is just as complex. For the brain to process language, it requires multiple parts of the brain on both hemispheres to work cohesively. You may not be able to speak a word, but your brain still interprets it and recognizes it.
Research found that this is due to what’s known as the ‘interpreter phenomenon’. Participants had to complete a puzzle. But the piece of the puzzle they needed was in their left hemisphere, while the picture of the complete puzzle was in their right. The right hemisphere could pick the correct piece, but when asked why they chose that piece, the left hemisphere—responsible for language—created a logical story. This research has been repeated in various forms, with similar results. Researchers concluded that the left hemisphere logically pieces together what the right brain is trying to communicate.
And modern research continues to prove that the right and left brain distinction is truly a myth. A study out of the University of Utah found that there is no indication of anyone using their right or left side dominantly. Even in tasks associated with one hemisphere over the other, multiple areas of the brain also lit up, proving that our brain functions as a whole—unless forced to operate separately. From a neurological perspective, it’s impossible to distinguish between the right or left hemisphere.
Applying whole-brain learning
Despite mounting evidence that people do not have a dominant brain hemisphere, the myth continues to prevail in today’s world. Dozens of websites associate the right-brain with emotion and spiritual growth, interpreting the intuition discovered in the above studies as overall intuitive ability. This led to self-help coaches and wellness gurus encouraging people to use and develop their right hemisphere more. On the other hand, the focus on STEM and other logic-oriented fields often tout the benefits of a strong left-brain. Multiple apps and programs are designed to focus on your left hemisphere.
But there are benefits to some of these approaches. One widely held belief was that training yourself to use your non-dominant hand would help “balance” your brain by activating your non-dominant hemisphere. And while that was debunked in modern research, using your non-dominant hand is beneficial for your brain. For example, when you brush your teeth with the opposite hand, you force your brain into active thinking. Brushing your teeth doesn’t require any brainpower. In fact, it’s a deeply embedded habit that you probably don’t spend any time thinking about. When you use your opposite hand, your brain can’t rely on the same patterns to trigger the habit sequence. This means you’re aware of what you’re doing and have to focus on the task. This helps improve your concentration, focus, and attention, and stimulates your brain in the same way learning something new does.
Another study found that training your non-dominant hand increased functional connectivity in the bilateral sensorimotor hand areas. It also improved the left-lateralized parieto-prefrontal praxis network, which is how your brain learns to perform specific skills and movements. Further, patients kept these improved skills long-term. Researchers believe they can use these findings to improve physical therapy exercises for patients suffering from stroke and brain injury symptoms.
Simply put, the pop psychology belief of two distinctly functioning hemispheres doesn’t capture the working relationship between the two sides. Some brain functions can occur on either side of the brain, but it’s a limited and limiting analysis. Your brain processes the world by utilizing several areas at once and rarely is anything in your brain associated with a single function.
How you think and process information is a complex process that isn’t easily captured with a bright infographic or an internet quiz. Instead, you are both right and left-brained and can harness either your creative strengths or your logical reasoning skills at any time. And the best brain exercises are ones that challenge your current skill-set and help you learn new ones.
If you want to learn more about how the brain works individually and as a whole, check out this video: