Modern myths of learning: The creative right brain

Modern myths of learning: The creative right brain

First published on TrainingZone, 03/06/2009

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“Creative (Right-Brain) people can attain their goals!”

“Creative people use the RIGHT side of their brains more than the LEFT”

“Do you get bored when teachers lecture too much?… If so, you may be right-brain dominant”

All typical statements about the brain drawn from the internet… All based on a myth.

There’s a modern myth of learning that certain complex mental tasks are dealt with exclusively by one side of the brain or the other. In particular, the right-hand side of the brain is portrayed as the seat of creativity. This usually leads, through a cascade of illogic and self-interest, to the conclusion that you will suffer if you do not make full use of the creative, right side of your brain, and that – conversely – unleashing the creativity dormant in this hemisphere will have dramatic effects on your learning.

Left brain, right brain… it’s a no brainer
Like previously examined myths (You only remember 10% of what you read, and you only use 10% of the brain) this has a pseudo-scientific aura about it. Like them, it also brings clarity to a vague feeling. In the other myths, this clarity comes from the addition of a spurious number to an experience: because it includes a percentage “You only remember 10% of what you read” (false) sounds more scientific and believable than “you may learn certain things better by doing them rather than by reading about them” (true). The left/right brain myth includes no spurious statistic, just a dichotomy: you are either left-brained/logical or right-brained/creative. Where did this myth spring from?

The science bit
Since Paul Broca in 1861 identified an area of the brain critical to articulate speech (Broca’s area) we have known that certain parts of the brain are responsible for particular, specific activities rather than the whole brain being required. Over the following century, painstaking work established a number of these localised areas of brain function and then in the 1960s Roger Sperry began what became known as the split brain experiments.

At the time severe epileptics were frequently treated by cutting the corpus callosum that links the two hemispheres of the brain, reducing the excessive electrical activity between the two halves which is one of the key causes of the complaint. Sperry researched patients following these experiments and found that while their brains continued to function, the patients’ separated hemispheres had different specialised abilities. The left’s was mainly related to language, maths and logic, the right’s to spatial perception, face recognition, visual imagery and music.

The problem is that interpreting the results of this surgery is more complex than carrying out the initial operation, as neurophysiologist Professor William H Calvin points out in his essay ‘The Throwing Madonna’. This is not least because of the special nature of the patients. Most of them had been epileptics since childhood, during which the brain is most plastic than in later years. In the young, brain function can move from a damaged area of the brain to another area, crossing hemispheres in the process. The result, notes Calvin, is that:

“Split-brain patients may be excellent candidates for studying the ability of functions to migrate from one hemisphere to the other during early childhood, rather than excellent candidates for inferring the separate abilities of the two hemispheres.”

Indeed, later experiments have shown that brain function uses both hemispheres of the brain in a complimentary way. This became clear using sophisticated brain scanning techniques unavailable to Sperry on a variety of volunteers, not only severe epileptics. John McCrone, in New Scientist, describes how the brain processes language, according to Joseph Hellige a psychologist at the University of Southern California:

“Under the scanner, language turned out to be represented on both sides of the brain, in matching areas of the cortex. Areas on the left dealt with the core aspects of speech such as grammar and word production, while aspects such as intonation and emphasis lit up the right side.”

The myth makers
This development however, has passed by the myth makers who fixed on the simple notion that one side of the brain is wholly responsible for complex activities such as listening or creativity. This is usually coupled with the idea that in any individual one hemisphere or the other of the brain will be dominant. The result: the concept of left and right-brainedness expressed in the idea that our dominant logical left brain was repressing our creative right brain to the detriment of our learning ability. This myth has spawned a wide variety of learning materials. Much of it is self-serving nonsense.

On the other hand, just because a book mentions right- or left-brain dominance and creativity does not make it bad in itself. ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ by Betty Edwards, for example, is an excellent book. If you don’t believe you can draw, buy this book, do the exercises faithfully, and you will be amazed at the results. It works. The relaxation techniques and the visualisation methods described all help the reader get into the right state of mind to see an image clearly and then to draw it.

Betty Edwards used her considerable experience as an art teacher (she was 48 at the time) to write this book based on developing not drawing techniques, but five key perceptual skills to enable individuals first to see well, and then to draw. And, undeniably, it works. Does it matter, then, if the premise behind the title and some of the text surrounding Edwards’ exercises is not entirely scientifically accurate? Doesn’t the end justify the means?

There are two answers to this. The first is that if the material is good enough, you don’t need the pseudo-science. Edwards’ book could as easily have been called ‘Draw Well in 20 Days’, or ‘I’ll Bet You Can Draw!’, or anything else. With a less sciency-title, it might not have sold as many copies initially, but the material is good enough for it to have become a classic anyway.

The second answer is that it was an honest mistake. Sperry received his Nobel Prize for the split brain experiments in 1981, two years after Edwards’ first edition. At this time the idea that creativity was a right-brain activity was common place, and must have seemed a reasonable explanation for why her very effective classroom teaching worked. But the story has an interesting sequel. Whatever the title and contents of the book may have been when it was first published in 1979, Edwards now makes no claims about the location of creativity in the brain:

“Betty Edwards has used the terms L-Mode and R-Mode to designate two ways of knowing and seeing – the verbal, analytic mode and the visual, perceptual mode – no matter where they are located in the individual brain.”

It seems as if – to her credit – Edwards has altered her approach in the light of our growing understanding of how the brain works. Not everyone has done the same. There are still plenty of suppliers of education and training materials using the myth of the creative right side of the brain. A supplier of children’s educational materials calls the right brain creative, intuitive and you can buy a book of exercises ‘for the creative side of your brain’. Some of this material may be excellent, like Betty Edwards’ book. But like Edwards’ book, if it’s good enough, it shouldn’t need the pseudo science. There are plenty of problems with this sort of sloppy thinking. Here are two.

First, it does the learning and development community as a whole no good at all. We all get tarred with the same brush. To the many who know the reality of the situation, we appear either as a bunch of air-heads who don’t understand the science or, worse, as greedy individuals who know how people really learn, but ignore it to make a quick buck.

It’s all in the tea leaves…
Second, step into pseudo-science, and you’ll be in some pretty interesting company. If the title of Margaret Ruth’s column in the Huffington Post doesn’t give it away – Right brain thinking is the hottest new fad! Ways to enhance your intuition – then the invitation to ‘read more’ with links to aura reading, boards, crystal ball, numerology and tasseomancy (tea leaf reading) among others might make you think about the company you want to keep.

We can’t call ourselves a profession if we unthinkingly recycle myths that are nearly 30 years old. L&D professionals need to keep up to date and to renounce pseudo-science. If our material is good enough, it just isn’t necessary and using it makes us look – individually and collectively – unprofessional.

I leave the final word to a quote from experimental psychologist Professor Michael Corballis of the University of Auckland (thanks to Leon Stander for this):

“The main difficulty is that reference to the brain can be seen as a legitimizing force that gives scientific credence to dubious practices… The problems arise when we allow myth to escape from scientific scrutiny and become dogma, and when dogma creates financial opportunities for charlatans and false prophets. That is what I think has happened with the left brain and the right brain.”

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17 responses to “Modern myths of learning: The creative right brain

  1. Very interesting stuff here. I have started becoming more interested in this L/R Brain jargon and I will tell you why.
    During my schooling years i was a fantastic artist, and very good at the ‘art’ subjects, however my head master did tell me to do A levels maths as I was a good candidate, I never did do it. I left school and become an engineer and after many years doing this I started photography, but I seemed to struggle with the ‘arty’ type picture, and it was with some reading that I thought that perhaps after so many years of the L side approach that i had lost the R side advantage in my new field of expertise. I hence decided to source material on the web that I will teach me to exercise my R side so as I could visualize a finished picture that would stand out and be created through software or otherwise. That’s when I came across your writings.
    So in Prof W.H Calvin writing could creativity also be transferred over to the left side of the brain? Could be interesting this.

  2. This is a reasonable perspective in my opinion. There are many specific things that are hemisphere-specialized in the neurotypical brain, but “creativity” in the non-trivial sense of proucing something novel, useful, and influential, is not among them, it is a demanding process requiring all of the cognitive, social, and environmental resources we can muster, including both sides of the inside of our skull.

    I’m surprised that popular authors like Dan Pink who have otherwise good ideas are resorting to this tired metaphor to get to people. It seems like cheaping out to me.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  3. I have a member of my family who is obsessed with leaning more to the view of categorising – left brained – right brained – and has made the decision that she and her son is right brained rather than look at the possibility of aspergers syndrome being more likely – I am of the view rightly or wrongly that we all have certain aspects of “Aspergers Syndrome” and neurotypical is a fluctuation of bevavioural traits that are indicative of people ‘jumping on the band wagon’ and deciding they are suffering from Aspergers Syndrome when in actual fact – it is their social skills that need trained and is it possible that schools are not accepting this as a necessary part of the curriculum – I am 72 – left school as a typical young 15.5 female – jumping into the adult world and expected by my parents to get on with it – it was a confusing time – however – I had courage and a sense of right and wrong – also a built-in survival of how to cope to keep myself ‘safe’ ….I also had common sense that sadly seems to be lacking in a lot of young adults despite whether academically well educated or from main stream education – surprisingly the young people I have met who have a common – sense approach – have been raised in families who did not have much – parent/parents guidance/- but were expected by their parent/s to sort themselves out/grow up and not expect the world to owe them a living …I am expecting a tirade of mixed views on this and i welcome them because I am a grandmother – and want to understand what is now going on – I truthfully did not feel the pressures on me that the young people now have on them – yet I did not get spoiled and was expected to get on with it – and I have experienced the ups and downs of life – I have trained and worked since leaving school – so ..do tell me …am I wrong – have we lost sight of the fact that we cannot all have what others have got – and to be content with what we have —and if more of the materially oriented side of life comes our way – all to the good – and obtaining what we desire – often is more rewarding if one has had to work for it – and does not expect it just to fall into our laps…..

  4. Marianne – I too am 72 years of age and my life throughout has run parallel to your own upbringing – and it was interesting your comments at the beginning re – right brain – left brain and your view on this – my grandson has aspergers” and his mother – my daughter is a clever – intelligent person and is helping her son to assist him with building up ‘good social skills’ and she has read a lot re – right brain – left brain theories” and I must admit I was sceptical of this – however leaning more towards accepting that this is indicative of a child/person with aspergers. My grandson is a clever child – and at aged nine is accepting that he has a problem making friends – however – he accepts this as one of the challenges he has to deal with and is receiving a lot of support at his school and his mother works parallel with the school to assist her son to find strategies to enable him to currently cope with the fact that he is the same as everyone else/ however with different social skills – he amazes me with his insight to his need to understand the differences eg when aged 5 – he and I stood in the playground of his primary school and we watched a group of boys wrestling with each other – as in a rugby scrum – and he asked me if they were fighting or playing – it was obvious to me that they were playing – however not to him – he did say that he once got hurt in a group such as we were watching – and it was difficult to know if that was why he was questioning or what – and now on reflection – I understand – I am off the view that we all have asperger traits – and I asked this question of an adult who has aspergers and a trained psychologist/therapist and he agreed this is correct – I would like to finish by adding that I do not like labels – prefer to look at the behavioural skills of a child and if required to be addressed – then so be it – for the child’s sake and for the society he has to grow up and cope with – then guidance be given – preferably by parent/s – however if this is not done then by the school educational psychologist/behavioral therapist – and both may be required if the parent/s feel out of their depth. Like yourself – I did not expect anyone to give me a living – and my parents expected me to get on with it – and I did – made mistakes along the way – miserable at times – however was stoic and determined – to go to my parents and complain was not an option – so I got on with it – difficult road to travel however- I survived it !.

    • Marianne, my son has Asperger too. He is 24 and doing very well. He is a kind, balanced individual who has to work continually on his social skills, but has a BS in computers, he is both logical and creative, he has worked for the same company since he was an intern at 17y.o., has a well rounded personality, is well liked, though he doesn’t seem to notice, AND seems to be able to use both parts of his brain very evenly (with the exception of the social skills part). So what, nobody is perfect :-) The scene by the playground you described sounds so very familiar to me, I choose to se that Aspies are the purest people at heart because their brain does not allow them to be contaminated by the need for ‘social skills’ which often means to alter the truth for our selfish interest, being as a society or individuals. I just wanted to share with you for encouragement.

      Mr Taylor, I liked this article, it makes a lot of sense to me since I am an artist, yet I like math as well and I produce my art with a view to specific measurements. In fact I feel the greatest artists were/are also people who are able to visually organize exact mathematical information on a canvas or sculpture for realistic . That is what likeness in the subject portrayed stems from. Not to mention people like Leonardo da Vinci, or many individuals in the field of architecture. Anyways thanks for the article.

  5. Pingback: The Left Brain/Right Brain Dichotomy is Nonsense | This Way

  6. Am I missing something here or did Marianne post on the 15th January, forgot that she had done so, and then posted a reply to herself on the 15th Feb remarking upon the similarities of their ‘respective’ lives? I happened to notice the similrity in writing styles (lots of -s and /s) before seeing that the names were the same. Interesting…

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  8. Hi, I log on to your blogs daily. Your humoristic style is witty,
    keep it up!

  9. I don’t drop a leave a response, however I looked at a few of the comments on this page Modern myths of learning: The creative right brain | Donald H Taylor. I actually do have 2 questions for you if you tend not to mind. Is it simply me or do a few of the comments come across like they are left by brain dead people? :-P And, if you are writing at additional online sites, I’d like to follow
    you. Could you make a list of every one of all your public pages like your twitter feed, Facebook
    page or linkedin profile?

  10. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something
    which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me.
    I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get
    the hang of it!

  11. Hi there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and
    found that it’s really informative. I am gonna watch out for brussels.
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  12. Thanks for this great article. I have read quite a few articles on many of the pseudo-sciences that use this left-right brain to support them, but yours explains it best for me. It seems that the new pseudo-science is about the four quadrants of the brain. I’d be interested in your views on this.

    • Hi Sandy thanks for the kind words. I haven’t actually seen anything about the four quadrants of the brain – I’ll keep an eye out. My general answer is that anything that over-simplifies the brain will be wrong. Of course some regions of the brain are very specific in their uses, but large, complex activities like language, learning and creativity use the whole brain and cannot be confined to one hemisphere or one quadrant of it.

      • This is quite a typical example -https://whoareyoumeanttobe.com/striving-styles/four-quadrant-model-brain
        If you google it you’ll find quite a lot about this and ‘whole brain thinking’. (I’m trying very hard to only use one half of my brain, as I thought it would give the other half a rest, but as yet I’ve been unsuccessful…)

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