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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 09/20/2010

Willingham: Left/right brain theory is bunk

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

By Daniel Willingham
An article was published this week in the venerable (and reliable) psychology journal Psychological Bulletin, which synthesized 67 brain imaging studies of creativity. Among other things, it showed that creativity is not especially a right-brain function. In fact, two of three broad classes of creative thought that have been studied seem not to depend on a single set of brain structures.

What we call “creativity” is so diverse that it can’t be localized in the brain very well.

One might think that this study would put to rest at least part of the left brain/right brain mythology, namely, that the right hemisphere of the brain is more responsible for creative thought than the left.

One would think so, but I wouldn’t count on it.

In the usual mythology, the left hemisphere of the brain is logical, ordered, and analytic, and it supports reading, speech, math, and reasoning. The right hemisphere is more oriented towards feelings and emotions, spatial perception, and the arts, and is said to be more creative.

We have known for at least 30 years that this characterization is incorrect.

The language we find useful to discuss mental functions is, for the neuroscientist, a rather high level of description. That is, for a function like “reading” or “music” much of the brain gets into the act. Each is not supported by a single hemisphere.

For example, even a seemingly simple function like “learning a sequence” depends on numerous brain areas. In this brain imaging study some colleagues and I found that 14 brain areas contribute to the sequencing task we examined. “Sequential thought” is supposed to be a left brain function, but we observed five areas in the left hemisphere, five in the right, and four bilateral. (That is, the activity was in corresponding areas of both the left and right hemispheres.)

This doesn’t mean that the two hemispheres of the brain don’t sometimes (or often) do different things. It means that the language we find useful in talking about thinking is too coarse to capture these differences.

I say “sequencing” and that corresponds to 14 different brain areas! So thinking that we can identify an array of these tasks--logical thinking, language, math, and others--that all depend mostly on one hemisphere seems a little far-fetched. More to the point, we know it’s inaccurate.

Okay, inaccurate. But harmful?

Not always. Sometimes I hear hear the terms “left-brain thinkers” or “right brain thinkers” as a shorthand to describe people who are drawn to more logical, ordered ways of thinking, in contrast to more “artsy” types. It’s understood that there is not meant to be any scientific weight to the labels. They are just a convenience.

An astronomer may use the term “sunrise” without worrying that he’s being a bad scientist because he knows that the sun doesn’t really rise over the earth. It’s understood to be a figure of speech.

Unfortunately, left brain/right brain is sometimes taken more seriously.

This idea is used in education in two ways. Sometimes the left brain/right brain distinction is offered as an account of differences in ability, much as in the casual (and harmless) way I described.

But when offered as a more scientifically weighty theory, people start to call for school to be more right brain oriented.

Sometimes this call is pitched in terms of fairness; the right-brain kids seem to be at unfair disadvantage. Sometimes it’s pitched as common sense; we’re ignoring half of kid’s brains!

Other people treat the left brain/right brain distinction not as a distinction of abiity (what kids are good at) but as a learning style (how kids prefer to learn). Left-brain kids will understand a concept best by talking about it, for example, but right brain kids will want to draw a diagram.

Teachers might be urged to engage in whole-brain teaching by including different ways of understanding a concept that honor left brain and right brain differences.

In both cases, prescriptions are given greater weight because of the apparent neuroscientific basis of the recommendations. “Kids who have trouble with reading, math and science are at a disadvantage at school,” sounds obvious and unimpressive when compared to “right brain dominant children are at a disadvantage at school.”

But if the distinction as usually described is inaccurate, there is no scientific weight behind the prescriptions.

Still, I’m not counting on the latest article on creativity to quell enthusiasm for inaccurate left brain/right brain science.

Mike Gazzaniga
, one of the pioneers of the modern study of brain hemispheric differences, tried to put a damper on the craziness in a book chapter titled “Left brain, right brain: A debunking.”

That was 25 years ago and there is still plenty of bunk.


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 20, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Research  | Tags:  brain research, daniel willingham, left brain/right brain, mike gazzaniga  
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Daniel, most of the time I think you have it right on the various topics you have addressed in this column.

But there are some serious discrepancies (for lack of a better term) here, and your article slights some of the studies done in visual art.

Point 1:
People tend to confuse the process of creativity with visualization, or imaging ability. For many, many years,and way prior to Betty Edwards studies on drawing which resulted in her book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", artists have used various techniques to enhance their drawing ability in terms of observation.
Many of the exercises involve an improving of the ability to override the verbal chatter of the mind so as to interpret solely the visual reality presented. The exercises work; whether you want to believe Edwards' and others' studies and postulations on these activities being seated primarily in the actual location of the right brain, or whether you prefer to take it more as a helpful distinction; imagery and verbal abilities are distinct. Of course they cross-over, intermingle, and other by-products happen. I write music and poetry as well as do visual art, and the imagery comes into play in both the music and the writing.

Point 2:
After teaching Art in alternative schools for many years, I observed time and again
that many of my most gifted art students were some of the most impacted in reading and verbal skills. Of course that division did not represent their whole persona, but the strength versus the weakness was too obvious to ignore. Their visual strengths could be further categorized to show abilities specific to use of color, to drawing, to crafting (which requires solid ability to sequence, so there is a crossover), to 3-D architectural models, to fashion design. Many of these students went on to excel in a field that utilized their visual strengths.

Point 3:
Many diagnostic tests for students may be seen as loosely representing this right brain/left brain 'myth'....they are divided into Verbal and Performance. The students I worked with in Art often scored higher in the Performance area than the Verbal.

Point 4:
Think you would do well to define 'artsy' -
it feels a bit insulting, and is not helpful in the reading of this article.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 20, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

This article is treading on dangerous grounds.

Without the excuse of left brain/right brain there might be the expectation that children should learn to think.

The logical outcome of this would be then to expect adults to be able to think.

This would be totally disruptive to our society.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 20, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

@ PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large:
You seem to think that I’m arguing for “g,” or a single intelligence. I’m not, at all.
I have no argument with the idea that visual imagery and verbal abilities are distinct. Lots of data support that. What I’m arguing against is the simple-minded (and demonstrably wrong) neuropsychological account of this independence.
I apologize for using the word “artsy.” Looking it up, I see that it connotes pretention, which I didn’t know and sure didn’t mean to imply. Thanks for point that out.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 20, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Daniel, thank you for clarifying.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 20, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

After teaching Art in alternative schools for many years, I observed time and again that many of my most gifted art students were some of the most impacted in reading and verbal skills. Of course that division did not represent their whole persona, but the strength versus the weakness was too obvious to ignore.
Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large
This is one of the problems created by this idea of left brain/right brain.

Intelligent children that can read spend their time reading. Children that can not read spend their time in other activities. Some of the children that can not read have the innate intelligence, as demonstrated by their ability in the visual arts, to learn how to read.

The goal should be to have all children with innate intelligence to excel at both reading and visual arts.

The British public schools do not have this problem.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 20, 2010 3:48 PM | Report abuse

So nice to see cognitive science being used for something more productive than pseudo-Aristotelian teleology! I've grown frustrated with people's insistence on being a learning "type" and agree wholeheartedly that whole-brain learning is the way to go. Thanks for writing about it so accessibly.

Posted by: akrauss | September 20, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

@bsallamack & akrauss:

In the alternative schools I worked in we had goals of teaching the students with dyslexia and other learning issues to become proficient readers and even to excel, and we had many kinds of therapies to work to this end. BUT, and this is very true - difficulties like dyslexia are organic in origin,and to date it is a slow process and calls for a lot of very difficult, frustrating work on the part of the student and teachers/support services. In the meantime, these particular students must learn to absorb information and apply it through different modalities.

I know the above to be true not only from teaching and observational experience, but from watching two members of my family struggle for years with reading difficulties, and they were highly intelligent - they also went on to achieve masters' degrees, become very successful in their chosen fields, marry and raise families.

I don't think any teacher would argue against using 'whole brain' approaches, but to not accept that many peoples' brains function in very different ways, including the pace of development, is to encourage a lock-step approach to learning.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 20, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

In the alternative schools I worked in we had goals of teaching the students with dyslexia...
Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large
It might be better to indicate in your comments that your observations are based upon children with dyslexia.

Of course there has to be different teaching methods for those with dyslexia and actual learning disabilities, but at the same time there continuously seems to be a resistance to developing methods for dealing with the majority of children without learning problems.

I spent 5 years as a visual artist until I decided to pursue other career goals.

Imagination and creativity are not exclusive areas of the arts but simply characteristics of intelligence and those who can think.

The reality is that educators in this country simply pretend that they agree with a whole brain approach in education.

Remember the aim is to make every child proficient which in reality is simply to strive for mediocrity.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 20, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Daniel, I would simply ask you, "What are your motivations for the 'debunking'?" Whether the right.left brain paradigm is completely valid OR if it serves simply as a valuable vehicle through which people can learn to access and strengthen new mental abilities, the goal of brain research these days seems to be to create a new awareness about the power we each hold within us. Consider the breakthroughs in Quantum Physics and the classics such as Dr. Herbert Benson. Couldn't you present the value of each--the more scientific-based perspective that you extoll AND the dual hemisphere school of thought? Albert Einstein said it all came down to whether we believe in a "friendly or unfriendly universe". Modern philosophers would say that our thoughts and actions are EITHER fear-based or love-based. Dr. Jill was a Harvard brain researcher when she experienced a stroke--a hemmorage in her LEFT brain that left her with a more inspired perspective to BALANCE her previoous left-brain dominant viewpoint. Regardless of the sticker you want to put on it, our society is heavily slanted in favor of the more logical, linear, ego-centered, past/future mindse. Our future sustainability depends on a NEW mindset, one that chooses the "greater good" over personal gain and chooses to listen to the heart as well as the mind. Look at the environment, the public education system. Doesn't the left/right paradigm serve the purpose of creating a new awareness about the different personalities we embody and the CHOICE we have to make each time we face a new challenge or conflict. I believe that we can nurture new thinking that is holistic, compassionate, big-picture-driven, and loving to BALANCE the current train of thought. I would think you would be most interested in the outcome produced by this kind of balance--not one that obstinately defends a somewhat elitist, "I know better than you",viewpoint. "artsy" is the new "pinstripe". Creativity is the new MBA. Creativity is dependent on whole-brain, inclusive, non-judgemental thinking. Thank you for the controversial and intersting blog entry! Peace. Whitney

Posted by: creativelyfit | September 21, 2010 2:01 AM | Report abuse

I've had disagreements with bsallamack in the past, but his comment about reading--"Intelligent children that can read spend their time reading. Children that can not read spend their time in other activities."--is perfectly correct. For years, educators and parents have gotten causation confused with correlation. My AP English teacher was also doing a study on grades and television and told our class her statistics indicated that students who got low grades watched the most television. Class members--all high school students with no training in statistics at all--immediately questioned the cause-effect relationship. One said his parents had never limited his TV; he just thought most shows were boring.

One of the reasons I was such a bookworm and my brother wasn't was because he was far-sighted and I was extremely near-sighted. It's really difficult to get interested in outdoor activities when you can't see what's in front of you!

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 21, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse


I Know because I had a left brain shift at an early age and a right brain awakening eight years ago. I didn't know what had happened to me until I did research on the subject of creativity and the right/left brain theory. One of the books I read was "My Stroke of Insight" written by a brain scientist, Jill Bolte Taylor. Read chapter three of her book and be enlightened.

"Trauma and Recovery" written by Judith Herman should also shed some light on the matter.

This is an important subject and should not be taken lightly, since trauma and brain shifts are becoming more common in our difficult times. Understanding the brain from a neuroscientific perspective can produce positive healing for trauma victims like it did for me.

Posted by: janielbl | September 21, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Right/Left Brain Kids

I was a right brain kid turned into a left brain survival mode kid. Today, because of cumulative traumas, there are many kids out there like me.

If you really want to help kids to learn... help them to understand how the brain works and why they sometimes get stuck.

I had to relearn how to shift my brain to the right, creative side to have a more peaceful learning mind because I had gone out of automatic due to cumulative childhood traumas. I am not alone.

So many of our children suffer from anxiety and stress. We need to teach them how their brain can become their friend.

Understanding the right/left brain functions and learning the skill of shifting from one side to the other can be a great learning tool for our kids.

Knowledge conquers fear!

Posted by: janielbl | September 21, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

@creativelyfit: my motivation for debunking is very simple. People suggest educational policies and base their suggestions, in part, on what they claims scientists know about the brain. I'm pointing out that the scientific information is inaccurate. The proposed educational policy may still be a good one, but not because of the scientific basis.
@janielbl: everyone's experience is different. I can only tell you what researchers have found based on laboratory studies of patients who have suffered brain trauma and based on brain-imaging studies.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | September 21, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Daniel for replying to my comment. I know I am not an expert on the subject but one day I hope to add to that research as an individual who has looked at things from the inside out while healing an injured mind.

Posted by: janielbl | September 21, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for answering. I should clarify that I absolutely understand the difference in learning curves/capacities (I taught for 10 years) but recently I've noticed a tendency for students (adult and adolescent alike) to just give up on the things that are difficult, putting it down to being X or Y brain/type/etc. As a someone for whom math will never be intuitive, I'm sympathetic, but all too often the "left/right brain" thing becomes an excuse for not even trying -- in the minds of these students, biology is destiny, and there's no point fighting it.

Posted by: akrauss | September 22, 2010 5:59 AM | Report abuse

Surely all the experiences that people report or read about with changing brain functions for various reasons relate more to brain plasticity than to left/right issues.

The astonishing things people's brains do to accommodate losses and injuries within the brain are an indication that left/right is not prescriptive - because brains that lose apparently specific loci often relearn different pathways to perform the same tasks.

Posted by: amgnificent | September 22, 2010 6:10 AM | Report abuse

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