An animated discussion with an acquaintance the other day got me to thinking about the concept of left vs. right brainedness (known by scientists as lateralization of brain function) and how it affects people. Clearly, it is a fact of one’s makeup that is extremely important. There is much to be contemplated by the layperson trying to understand himself or herself. It seems to affect us so profoundly.
No doubt, the terms are often used loosely, and while I am not an expert, there seems to be much confusion, with concepts getting tossed around by people who feel that this or that trait is dominant in their makeup.
My wife is right brained. I am left brained. My entire nuclear family — parents and four children — was thoroughly left-brain predominant. I am so “left brain” it isn’t funny.
My acquaintance acquainted me with a chart summarizing the key features of the two types of brain dominance, which is very helpful. The key distinctions are that the left brain is dominant in speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, and mathematical computations, while in the right brain spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, and rhythm predominate. This is a very useful schema, heuristically, but as is true of much that is written and spoken about in human psychology, facile explanations and distortions are all too possible.
I have zero expertise and cannot do more than speak from experience and my own speculations: my experience as it seems to corroborate the basic ideas; my speculations about what this might say about creativity.
I am totally left-brained, as noted above, and knowing this and what its implications are has helped me greatly to understand myself. This is very true in terms of defects of mine in perception that stand out. I am very poor at learning and perception when it comes to spatial relationships. Give me an aptitude test of verbal ability and I will excel. Give me a test (as has happened) in which there are pendulums and pulleys, and one has to figure out which way a wheel will rotate if another wheel is rotating in the other direction, and I am helpless. I have no mechanical ability. If you give me directions in words, I’m fine. Show me a map and I am confused.
Facial recognition is a right-brain dominant strength. Being left-brain dominant, I am very weak at this. I used to have the embarrassing experience occasionally at my workplace of failing miserably at facial recognition. It would happen in the following manner. I would encounter someone who did not work in my department and perhaps worked on a different floor, but whom I knew and would see fairly often. I would encounter them at random so that the encounter was not foreseen. Suddenly, I could not think of their name, which caused me great consternation. I knew I knew them well, but I could not match the face with a name. I would say something like, “Good morning, how are you?” —leaving off their name — which the other person could perceive as being insulting. A few minutes later, after the encounter, the name would come to me, too late.
I am very good at remembering names of persons known to me in the present and in the past. I remember names of persons from way back whom I met but did not become closely acquainted with. So, there is a storehouse of names in my left brain. The problem, which used to cause me near panic at work, is that facial recognition somehow fails me, and I can’t connect the face with a name, even though there is a storehouse of names ready to be recalled in my left brain.
This is a significant fact of my experience, but it may not be that important. A more important fact is that I am at weak at thinking which is said to predominate in right brain types: holistic thinking, getting the big picture. I can reason and parse a problem with something bordering on brilliance, but sometimes when I have to make a decision and the facts are staring me right in the face, I have trouble seeing the solution clearly.
My Right-Brained Genius Friend
I had a friend in college who influenced me greatly intellectually. We used to have deep discussions (called bull sessions back them) that went on and on, often late into the night.
I recall when I first met him in our residence hall. He almost seemed like a hayseed and didn’t seem that smart. My college roommate, being informed that we had talked, said of my new acquaintance (the soon to become close friend and bull sessions partner) that he was brilliant. Really?, I thought. Several years later when reading a biography of Herman Melville, the words of Sophia Hawthorne (wife of Melville’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne) about Melville (in a letter to her mother) reminded me of my college friend:
He has very keen perceptive power; but what astonishes me is, that his eyes are not large and deep. He seems to me to see everything accurately; and how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way. … When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace or polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected; an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself.
My friend was like this in that he seemed to be mentally lazy, to not be that inquisitive or attentive at times. (This was actually NOT the case, as I was to discover.) He did not exhibit verbal brilliance; his conversation was not scintillating on the surface. (Actually, he was extremely insightful; I just didn’t see it.) He didn’t come off as an intellectual. But, I discovered over time, through sustained acquaintance, that he was a near genius and exceeded me intellectually in many important respects. He was a right-brained, big picture guy with great insight into people and human relationships. (He became a psychiatrist.) He was highly capable of original thought and coming up with brilliant formulations of his own that were couched in plain, homespun language.
We were briefly postgraduate premedical students together. I petered out. He excelled in the premed program and was accepted by an excellent medical school. We were both working then and attending classes in the evenings. We would meet after lectures. Everything would have been digested by him and stored in his brain for exam time. He barely had to study or look at a textbook, it seemed. He has gotten all the essential lecture points down pat. That is why I perceived him as being intellectually lazy; he never seemed to be making an effort (usually, I should say; this was actually not always the case).
My right-brained “genius” friend was not well read (although he did well, to the extent he made an effort, in English and humanities courses and helped to introduce me to James Joyce by encouraging me to attend a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby” with him in my senior year in college). He had totally plebeian tastes in music; he was unacquainted with classical music. He could occasionally be unobservant about fine points of things and human relationships, making him appear insensitive. He was helpless at foreign languages. I stayed up all night once translating a paper into French for him that he had written, for a French course, in English and caught a bad cold. He barely thanked me.
My Wife and I; Right Versus Left
My right-brained wife excelled at geometry. She is better than I am at fixing things.
My wife has an excellent grasp of big picture issues. She often helps me unravel things — often when they concern human relationships — making clear what is plain as the nose on one’s face, but which I missed.
Early in our relationship, I thought to myself, she’s the math major and I’m the writer, she probably can’t write well. I was wrong. I am a more polished writer, but her writing (such as in student term papers she showed me and in communiques such as work related memos and emails to me) is well organized and clear. I came to see that (as illustrated by wife’s writing) the left brain/right brain distinction can be misleading when crude measures or yardsticks are applied. It’s basically a question of APPROACH.
An illustrative example will help to make clear what I mean by this.
When disputes arise that my wife and I can’t seem to resolve, I will often find myself giving her a long lecture, a “sermon,” trying to convince her that my viewpoint is right, segueing from minute point to minute point, with corollaries and ancillary points. Only if all my points have been made, fully and clearly, with illustrative examples and supporting “evidence,” do I feel entitled to say: I have proved my case.
You can see her eyes glaze over. All she wants to know is: what is (are) your main point(s)? But, from my point of view, this almost ensures defeat, because she didn’t agree with me in the first place.
What I think this shows — what thinking about left- versus right-brain thinking seems to indicate — is that there are elemental reasons why my wife and I often can’t resolve disputes. We approach mentally perceived things differently.
In the chart below, what we see is:
Left Brain Functions: Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.
Right Brain Functions: Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.
This is a problem with psychology extracted from science. It often becomes pseudoscience.
Which is not to say that the schema is unsound, or that the scientific findings (and I am not a scientist) are unsound.
But, someone who glances at the chart may think, left-brain people like myself are nerdy, pointy headed analytical types who don’t have pizzazz and are too uptight, too straightlaced to be able to be spontaneous or creative. Whereas right-brain types are intuitive persons into music, art, and rhythm who are much more creative.
A lot of people think that being logical means one is inhibited and incapable of creativity and to be creative you have to be kind of nutty like a Salvador Dali. This is a superficial, misleading view.
I believe that this is a fallacy, a serious one, and that it can lead to a profound misunderstanding of what creativity involves. To repeat, it’s not the schema that’s at fault. It’s that misinformed people don’t interpret it properly. As a matter of fact, the internet posting indicates that “It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.” (What is not said, which is a serious oversight, is that most creative people are analytical/logical.) The posting also indicates that it is not true that analytical people cannot be creative.
Note that the internet posting indicates that typical right-brain occupations include politics, acting, and athletics. “Acting,” one might say, “that’s creative. Proves my point. Right-brain types are creative.”
Two of the occupations listed, politics and athletics, are not in the creative category. And, actors, while they may have a lifestyle one associates with creative types, are not creative people. It is the playwrights, screenwriters, and directors who are creative.
The posting indicates that right-brained types are “intuitive,” whereas left-brained types are “logical.” Meaning that poets are right-brained? How about writers in general?
I’m not sure about poets, because I am not knowledgeable about poetry. But, I do know literature and great writing. Most writers — I will go out on a limb and assert it — are left brained.
Think of a writer such as Milton (poet!), Tolstoy, Melville, or Joyce laboring to produce a great work of art. Take the example of Joyce. A genius at language. Who labored about four years over Ulysses and seventeen years on his final novel, Finnegans Wake. The sequencing, the choice and order of words, were all. It is a master of language engaged in the most challenging exercise of exposition imaginable, drawing upon all his left-brain resources.
The schema associates right-brained people with musical talent. Perhaps at strumming a guitar or enjoying acid rock. But, this is very misleading; nowhere in the schema is there any indication that left-brained people may have a capacity for music. But, it is noted that left-brained people excel at mathematics.
It has been known for a long time that people with innate intellectual ability when it comes to abstract mathematics are often great appreciators of classical music. And, what’s more important, I am certain that most of the great composers were left-brained. Think about Beethoven endlessly revising his compositions. Working out the inner logic of his symphonies until it (the “musical logic”) seems preordained and inevitable. That is left-brained thinking, unquestionably.
People use words like “creative” and “intuitive” too loosely. Left-brainedness does not preclude creativity, far from it.
My mother provides an example. Her biggest intellectual strengths were reading/writing; communication/conversation. She was left-brained. She loved literature. She wrote very well. She remembered the books she read in great detail, as she also did conversations, incidents, and people she knew from the remote past. And, she was highly intuitive. It was the type of intuition a poet might have. She was great at picking up on subtleties, as poets (and also novelists) do and noticing or recalling little, telling details, in contrast to what is seen in “big picture” right-brain types.
A key, as is also true of my wife, to categorizing the mental or intellectual “cast” of person such as my mother is not to apply an adjective such as instinctive, intuitive, or artistic to that person from an a priori vantage point and then attempt to make it fit. It is, rather, to ask, how does that person habitually cogitate, communicate, and so forth? My mother excelled at writing and conversation. She was a born writer who never became one professionally. My father, to give another example, was a professional musician who showed talent from a very young age. Did that make him right brained? The answer is, definitely not. His writing demonstrated where his strengths lay. He wrote beautifully, whenever it was required of him. He had a gift that seemed remarkable for exposition, for making things clear, and for presenting his thoughts cogently, which is to say logically, both in conversation and writing.
My own career as a writer illustrates some of the above points. I was blessed with innate ability when it comes to language and exposition and raised in a family where these attributes were customary and essential. Yet, I slaved for years to hone my skills, beginning with rigorous writing instruction as a student and continuing with professional writing.
As a beginning professional writer, I often despaired of getting things right, meeting deadlines, being able to write to spec, and so forth; and labored for much longer than anyone might conceive to write short pieces for publication. What I have found over the years as I have become more skilled and my productivity has increased, is that there is a still a process which I go through in most cases. I start out with an idea for a piece of writing, I get some ideas down on paper. Leaving aside the question of research, which is a major undertaking in itself in the case of most expository pieces, I begin writing and it usually goes reasonably well. I am able to make a start (and am much more adept at this than in my earlier years as a writer when I labored over leads). Then, there is a long process of building upon that initial stab at a piece, of incremental additions, of qualifiers, rewriting, rearranging and recasting of thoughts, and of trying over and over again to get it just right, to get the words and sentences to cohere. It’s sort of like completing a jigsaw puzzle. (People think creativity means inspiration. Yes, it does, and no, it doesn’t. Meaning that most great works were produced after prodigious labor and endless refining — leaving aside the extended apprenticeship, years of study of models of excellence and of beginning or trial efforts, that a creative genius must undergo before achieving mastery. And, the works themselves do not just spring like rabbits out of a hat. Endless toil and labor go into producing them, during which the artist is not sure of the outcome. The best insights often come when you’re thinking hard, which means working hard, to perfect a piece, and they often come near the point of completion.)
For a while, one’s writing seems muddled, but it begins to take shape. Still, one knows that it’s not anywhere near completion, to being in finished form. One experiences frustration. But, the subconscious continues to work. One goes back to the piece, and on the tenth draft or so (literally) — if not the fifteenth or sixteenth — one feels the piece beginning to cohere and to have an inner logic: that it works. One has gone from becoming a logician of sorts (a logician of words and sentences, trying to work out their desired sequence) to an “artiste” (used sardonically), a creative writer, as they say. One experiences true creativity, which is very pleasurable. But true creativity is not possible without careful preparation and planning, without drudgery. This is not just true of a Roger W. Smith, it was also true of James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. Didn’t I already say it? I belong in distinguished company. I’m left-brained! As were they.
— Roger W. Smith
Left Brain vs. Right Brain
Left-brained people are supposed to be logical, analytical, and methodical, while right-brained people are supposed to be creative, disorganized, and artistic. But this left-brain / right-brain theory has been refuted by a large-scale, two-year study by researchers at the University of Utah. In other words, it is untrue that logical people predominantly use the left side of the brain and artistic people predominantly use the right. All people use both halves of the brain. However, the stereotypes associated with being left- or right-brained persist and continue to arouse curiosity.
Left Brain versus Right Brain
Left Brain Functions
Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.
Right Brain Functions
Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.
Left Brain Traits
Linear thinking, sequential processing, logical decision-making, reality-oriented.
Right Brain Traits
Holistic thinking, random processing, intuitive decision-making, non-verbal processing, fantasy-oriented.
Left Brain Perceived personality traits
Analytical, logical, pay attention to detail
Right Brain Perceived Personality Traits
Creative, artistic, open-minded.
Left Brain Overall Thinking
Linear, detail-oriented — “details to whole” approach.
Right Brain Overall Thinking
Holistic, big-picture oriented — “whole to details” approach.
Left Brain Thought Process
Sequential; verbal (process with words).
Right Brain Thought Process
Random; non-verbal (process with visuals).
Left Brain Problem-Solving
Logical — order/pattern perception; emphasis on strategies.
Right Brain Problem-Solving
Intuitive — spatial/abstract perception; emphasis on possibilities.
Left Brain Strengths
Mathematics, analytics, reading, spelling, writing, sequencing, verbal and written language.
Right Brain Strengths
Multi-dimensional thinking, art, music, drawing, athletics, coordination, repairs, remembers faces, places, events.
Left Brain Difficulties
Visualization, spatial/abstract thinking
Right Brain Difficulties
Following by sequence, understanding parts, organizing a large body of information, remembering names.
The theory of right brain vs. left brain dominance originates with Nobel Prize winning neurobiologist and neuropsychologist Roger Sperry. Sperry discovered that the left hemisphere of the brain usually functions by processing information in rational, logical, sequential, and overall analytical ways. The right hemisphere tends to recognize relationships, integrate and synthesize information, and arrive at intuitive thoughts.
These findings, while true, serve as the basis for the now-disproved theory that people who are logical, analytical and methodical are left-brain dominant, and those who are creative and artistic are right-brain dominant.
A study conducted at the University of Utah has debunked the myth. Neuroscientists analyzed over 1,000 brain scans from people between the ages of seven and 29. The brain scans did not show any evidence that people use one side of the brain more than the other. Essentially, the brain is interconnected, and the two hemispheres support each other in its processes and functions.
Lateralization of Brain Function
The human brain is split into two distinct cerebral hemispheres connected by the corpus callosum. The hemispheres exhibit strong bilateral symmetry regarding structure as well as function. For instance, structurally, the lateral sulcus generally is longer in the left hemisphere than in the right hemisphere, and functionally, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are located in the left cerebral hemisphere for about 95% of right-handers, but about 70% of left-handers. Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Roger Sperry has contributed significantly to the research of lateralization and split-brain function.
Brain Process and Functions
The left hemisphere of the brain processes information analytically and sequentially. It focuses on the verbal and is responsible for language. It processes from details into a whole picture. The left hemisphere’s functions include order and pattern perception as well as creating strategies. The left hemisphere controls the muscles on the right side of the body.
The right hemisphere of the brain processes information intuitively. It focuses on the visual and is responsible for attention. It processes from the whole picture to details. The right hemisphere’s functions include spatial perception and seeing possibilities in situations. The right hemisphere controls the muscles on the left side of the body.
People who are analytical and logical and who pay attention to detail are said to be left-brain dominant, i.e., they use the left side of the brain more than the right side. Basic characteristics of left-brain thinking include logic, analysis, sequencing, linear thinking, mathematics, language, facts, thinking in words, remembering song lyrics and computation. When solving problems, left-brained people tend to break things down and make informed, sensible choices. Typical occupations include being a lawyer, judge, or banker.
People who are creative, artistic and open-minded are said to be right-brain dominant, and the right side of their brain is more dominant. Basic characteristics of right-brain thinking include creativity, imagination, holistic thinking, intuition, arts, rhythm, non-verbal, feelings, visualization, recognizing a tune and daydreaming. When solving problems, right-brained people tend to rely on intuition or a “gut reaction.” Typical occupations include politics, acting, and athletics.
There exist personality types who are predominantly more analytical than artistic.
It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.
What’s Not True
Analytical people cannot be creative (or the other way round) because only one part of their brain is dominant.
Strengths and Difficulties
Left-brained people are supposed to be good at mathematics, reading, spelling, writing, sequencing and verbal and written language. They may have difficulty with abstract visualization.
Right-brained people are supposed to be good at multi-dimensional thinking, art, music, drawing, athletics, coordination and repairs. They remember faces, places and events. However, right-brained people may have difficulty understanding parts if they can’t see the whole. They may also struggle with sequencing, organizing a large body of information and remembering names.