The Left Brain/Right Brain Divide is a Myth

It’s time to get rid of it

Science, especially here in Australia, has a PR problem. People think it’s dry and boring, and that you can only do it if you’re logical, or good with numbers. No doubt at some point in your life you’ve been schooled on this; the idea that those of us who use the right side of our brains are more creative, spontaneous and subjective, while those who tap the left side more are more logical, detail-oriented and analytical.

Too bad it’s not true.

The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of left-dominant or right-dominant personality types. Lesion studies don’t support it, and the truth is that it would be really inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other. It’s an old-fashioned view of intelligence that teaches many of us early in life that we’re either ‘creative’ or ‘logical.’ And when a 12-year-old fills out an online personality test that pegs her as a right brained, and decides to skip her maths homework because she thinks her brain is just no good at numbers, that myth starts to become destructive.

It’s given us a society with far too many accountants repressing their inner acrobats, and far too many ballerinas that should have been biologists.

Thanks to an outdated education system and a popular discourse that’s obsessed with dualism, we’ve ended up with the idea that rationality (science) and creativity (art) are at odds with each other. Which is sad, because the sciences are actually a deeply creative field. In coding and mathematics, for example, there are many different creative ways to arrive at the same answer, if not improve it. In physics a lot of the best science is done through the same kind of highly conceptual, creative thinking used by artists. Indeed, scientists themselves describe science not as a set of facts, or vocabulary to memorise, or a lab report with the right answer, but as an ongoing exploration of questions we don’t have answers to. That’s the challenge, the adventure in it.

The symbiosis of science and art goes both ways of course. Great artists are often incredibly scientific in their approach. The work of someone like Android Jones, Yayoi Kusama or Ryoji Ikeda requires a technical proficiency that is easily the equal of a materials scientist or a cancer researcher, involving thousands of hours of hypothesis, experimentation and iteration. The same is true for the world’s best contemporary dancers, fashion designers, or graffiti artists. Top scientific institutes understand this. It’s why NASA has a dedicated art studio, and why CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has an ongoing arts residency. Far from being the opposite of each other, science and art are very close cousins.

So what does this mean for you? Well, one of the hallmarks of science is discarding old beliefs when new evidence presents itself. It’s easy to internalise the right brain/left brain myth because as humans, we like categories, classifications and generalizations. There’s something seductively simple about labeling yourself and others as either a logical left-brainer or a free-spirited right brainer.

Stop it. This is flat-earth thinking, and it leads to a lot of perverse outcomes, especially in education and business. Labeling people this way is no better than judging them according to their astrological sign or blood type. We shouldn’t underestimate our potential by allowing a simplistic myth to obscure the complexity of how our brains really work. Every time we label ourselves as ‘not creative’ or ‘terrible at technical stuff’ we’re using a lazy heuristic that doesn’t do us, or anyone else any favours.

You are not a label.

Your brain is not a computer.

It has an amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between its different components, allowing you to continually learn new things and modify your behavior. It is the most complex organism we know of in existence, and gives you a deep wellspring for scientific thought, wild bursts of creativity, abstract reasoning, and astounding acts of love and kindness.