All legends have an element of truth, and this is the case of the well-known myth about the left and right sides of the brain. We've probably read thousands of times about how our left side is responsible for our analytical and rational thinking, while our right side is the centre of our creative thinking and intuition. The myth goes as far as saying the two sides of the brain are responsible for generating two opposite personalities, such as mathematicians versus artists.
And, let's be honest we quite likely recognise ourselves in one or the other profile somehow. As humans, we love that rewarding “That’s really me!” feeling when taking a random online test and finding out a profile that works for us. The cherry on top is to be told that we are actually a mix of left and right brain personalities, able to combine intuition and rationality, creativity and calculation, improvisation and organisation. Isn’t this what so many coaches call for, with hundreds of books and webinars to train the two sides of our brain to talk to each other?
Martina Ratto, Beingwell's Cognitive Scientist says that this is all...
Neuroscience doesn't provide much evidence to support the left VS right brain myth. Often there are unsupported claims without enough evidence from science yet, meaning that there's a lot of chatter about stuff we don't actually know much about yet.
So, with the help of our big-brained boffin, Martina, let's set the record straight:
Belief 1: Our brain is made up of two hemispheres, normally distinguished as the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere
The first part of the story is definitely true. The anatomy of our brain clearly shows that this special organ is divided into two symmetrical parts, linked together by what we call corpus callosum, which is used as a communication centre between the two parts. We can call these two hemispheres right and left to easily distinguish them.
Belief 2: Each area of our brain is specialised in carrying on a specific function
This is another key true brick that makes up the myth. Brain specialisation is one of the basic assumptions of neuroscience and has been studied for more than one century. The idea that different brain areas are responsible for different functions started from the investigation on patients who had a trauma or a lesion in a specific region of the brain. What was observed is that they maintained most of their functionality despite the trauma, while a specific ability was compromised or their behaviour changed in some ways. This suggested that there are areas in the brain dedicated to specific functions. Brain specialisation is currently studied with brain scans, showing areas of activation while performing a specific task.
Our brain’s overall functioning is much more complex than just assuming that only single areas are activated while we perform a task. What really happens is that different areas of the brain are activated at the same time and contribute together to our thinking or action. Our thinking is distributed within our whole brain, with several specialised areas involved, rather than being just located in a single area.
Belief 3: Our brain functions fit into a specific hemisphere
This piece of true science plays a crucial role in the right VS brain myth. Some specific brain functions sit within one of the two sides of the brain. For example, two well-known brain areas responsible for our language abilities are located in the left side of the brain, while key visuospatial abilities are found in the right half. Also, it is proven that the right hemisphere mostly controls the left part of our body, while the left hemisphere controls the right one.
Everything is connected. Even language, which is normally considered a key left brain function, could not fully work without the involvement of some right brain areas. Patients with brain injuries located in some right areas of the brain, responsible for emotional aspects of language, can end up with difficulty communicating with others, despite the left-side language areas being intact. The same with abilities commonly attributed to the right brain, such as music skills or creativity: we can't be great musicians without having a good perception of rhythm (guess which part of the brain it sits? Left!).
Belief 4: Personality traits and thinking styles depend on hemispheres
Right-handed and left-handed people exist, do right-brained or left-brained people? Nope. Whatever our personality is, we would still need both sides of our brain to carry out even the simplest tasks in our everyday living. Whatever our thinking style is, we can't just turn part of our brain off!
Then, why do we recognise ourselves so well in the profile description of right or left-brained people? Differences in personality traits do exist, and we may tend to be, as a person, more intuitive rather than a systematic thinker, we could be more logical than emotional, some of us may love maths and science, while some others may love arts. That’s simply being human.
Does our brain activity mirror these differences in personalities? No, but activity in our brain mirrors the activity we're performing. What happens in our brain while we're debugging a piece of software code is not the same as what happens while we're painting watercolours in a park. In the first case, our left brain might be more active, while in the second case our right brain may be more involved. Either way, this is far from determining who we are as a person, whatever hand we use to write.
Debunked: We can now see how a huge myth strung up from authentic scientific facts. Thinking in terms of right and left brain is still in fashion despite being debunked for ages. Legends and metaphors might contain some truth but we don’t take them literally! Forgetting about left and right, trying different ways of thinking, different approaches to problem-solving and varying activities is the best way to stimulate different areas in our brain and make the most of it.