Can We Drop This Whole Left/Right Brain Business Already?

I’m something of an armchair neuroscience minor as I often find myself researching behavioral traits, influences and motivations simply for the heck of it. I think its partly because I have this need to understand why people act the ways they do at a fundamental rather than practical level thanks to my many years spent as an extreme introvert during my high school years. It also hooks into the skeptical side of me quite well as I’ll often find bits of pop psychology that get bandied around by my not-as-interested friends that I’ll attempt to correct, lest they spread that nonsense to other people.

It seems that some ideas are just too sexy to go away, however.

I was watching TV recently, a veritable treasure trove of techniques based on modelling the human psyche, when an ad for a car popped up. Now I can’t remember exactly which car it was and a quick Google brought up two current campaigns that play on the same idea. The first one is a series of print ads from Mercedes-Benz and the second (and the one that seems the most familiar) is one from Kia:

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They both play on that whole left brain/right brain idea where by the left side is some kind of cold calculating logic driven engine whilst the right side is the creative one, filled with random ideas and that spark that all creative people seek. This then lead onto the ideas that men are typically left side dominant and women are right side dominant. However there also seemed to be a bevy of online tests available to check if you were left or right side dominant, seeing if you’re more of a creative than logical kind of person. For years it seemed everyone was drinking this kool aid, seemingly without any consideration to how the brain actually works.

It is true that there are functions of the brain that appear to be dedicated to particular hemispheres, which is referred to as the lateralization of brain function, it can also be shown that both sides of the brain are quite capable of performing those functions and indeed do so in many cases. There’s also no guarantees as to which functions are lateralized where as different people will have different hemispheres dominant for a particular function. Short of removing one half of the brain no person can be truly left or right brain dominant in the sense of being creative or logical. Indeed the research shows that both logical and creative functions are present in both hemispheres completely debunking this whole idea.

What was even more preposterous were the online tests devised to determine whether you were right or left brain dominant. The most famous of which, one which spurred a rather heated discussion between me and my friends at the time, was the spinning dancer. Looking at the image you’ll see the dancer spinning either clockwise or counter clockwise and that was somehow meant to tell which part of your brain was dominant. Funnily enough I could see it spin both ways and could make it change on demand by looking at the feet and the shadow so I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was a proper test for a phenomenon I already didn’t believe in. Indeed it is simply just an optical illusion with your brain “filling in” details that it perceives as missing and such activities are carried out by the visual cortex which spans both hemispheres.

The fact that we’re still seeing things referencing this whole fake phenomena means that it’s still widely believed to be true, which is really unfortunate. Whether a person is more creative or logical has nothing to do with which part of their brain is dominant and is in fact more likely due to the nurturing of the innate creative/logical talent that we all have. I guess any simple metric that divides people into two groups will always be popular (“Oh you shouldn’t listen to him, he’s such a left brain!”). It’s a shame really but hopefully like any fad it’ll eventually fade away, never to be mentioned again.

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