The Myth of the Myth of The Right Brain Difference: And Why It Matters

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Synopsis

Despite the broad oversimplifications and misinformation of the 1970’s left - brain right brain thinking craze-- I.e. the left side of the brain is for language and logic, and the right side of the brain is for creativity and imagination-- there are significant differences between the right and left the side of the brain, and these differences matter.

Despite the broad oversimplifications and misinformation of the 1970’s left - brain right brain thinking craze-- I.e. the left side of the brain is for language and logic, and the right side of the brain is for creativity and imagination-- there are significant differences between the right and left the side of the brain, and these differences matter.

Turns out, almost every right-brain left -brain generalization from the 1970’s is false. For complex cognitive processes, such as emotion, creativity and language, we call on both brain hemispheres utilizing larger interconnected brain systems.

These disproven oversimplifications have given the topic a bad name, but that, however, does not mean that there are not significant differences between the roles of the right hemisphere and the left. 

Scientists have long noted notable structural asymetries in the two sides of the brain. Those asymetries include, sizes of the two hemispheres, as well as their shapes, gray and white matter mass ratios,  gyral patterns, and how they respond differently to neuroendocrine hormones. The two sides of the hemispheres even utilize different neurotransmitters at times.

Additionally, many clinicians would readily admit that a stroke to either side of the brain does indeed result in significant different forms of pathology. Ignoring these obvious differences in the hemispheres  inhibits our understanding of individuals who have a tendency to have reversed lateralization, or bilateral activity, with significant right brain or left brain dominance. I.e. dyslexia, Aspergers, autism, schizophrenia, and eating disorders.

But more importantly, we are all somewhere on the spectrum between right dominant and left dominant thinkers and these dominances tell us something quite noteworthy in terms of the ways in which our brain processes information.

So… if the left brain is not for rationality and language and the right brain is not for creativity and emotion what really is the difference between the right brain and the left brain?

In pursuit of understanding this intriguing difference between the left and right side of the brain, cognitive scientists have turned to studying the brains of animals which have significant asymmetries.  In the world of evolutionary biology “laterality pays i.e. asymmetry of hemispheric utilization” . Researchers observed that animals use their right and left hemispheres for different purposes. Specifically a research team lead by a Turkish-German neuroscientist,  Prof. Onur Güntürkün, noticed structural asymmetries while pigeons performed various cognitive tasks, leading some cognitive scientists to claim that:  

The difference in the hemispheres is the way the the right brain and the left brain pays attention.

As psychologists  have noted with pigeons. It comes down to different survival strategies. When a predator, finds his prey, he must narrow his attention never to lose sight of his dinner. When a bird attempts to pick up a small seed amidst gravel or pick up a twig to build a nest, it has got to have very narrow, specific attention.  The trouble with this hyper-focused attention, theorised, Dr. Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  “That as you are doing this, you may just become someone else's dinner...thst is why one must enroll, a very different attention style as well, a style that is constantly aware of threats in the broader environment..."  Thus the brain has evolved to include both attention systems; the hyper focused detail oriented localized attention system, as well as the holistic, gestalt, environmentally sensitive attention system, because both attention systems are needed to survive. 

What role does environment have on hemispheric dominance ?

Various studies (and here, here) do indeed  show a strong gene-environment interaction that is constantly shaping the lateralization of the brain from the point of conception onward.

And indeed, a typically developing child in today's culture tends to show more left lateralization as the child matures and becomes more versed in reading and writing.

(Dyslexic, ASD, and children showing schizophrenic tendencies often exhibit resistance to normal lateralization patterns, bilateral activation or reverse activation). However everyone is being shaped to some extent by their environments.

A myriad of theorists have been exploring the relationship between widespread literacy and the overarching impact that left lateralization has on society.

Quite controversially, brain surgeon Leonard Shlain in his book The Alphabet Vs. the Goddess, has claimed that the widespread use of the alphabet has impacted our brains to the extent that post oral- literate cultures have begun to struggle with right brain gestalt-necessary cognitive processes. This left dominance Shlain theorized,  has contributed to a reductionist, overly linear way of processing the world, creating a perfect backdrop for the development of a male- dominated patriarchal society. Although language utilizes both sides of the brain, mastering the alphabet and most written language systems, relies on a heavily systematic, detail-oriented, left dominant processing style.       

More recently, but ever so controversially,  the psychiatrist and Oxford Literary Scholar Iain McGilchrist has claimed that our overly left lateralized brains are leading America to depression.  As radical as these ideas sound, a cautious relationship to the widespread implications of literacy and the adoption of the alphabet, is not a new trend. Prof. Walter J Ong, Author of the seminal book Orality and Literacy, hypothesised back in the 1980’s, a significant correlation between the changes that had occurred in thought processes, personality and social structures at various stages of our history, to the development of speech, writing and print. Ong emphasised the noteworthy cognitive processing advantages found in pre-literate cultures, compared to cultures that have adopted literacy.  

However, as we move more from a post printing press culture, in which information was primarily exchanged via the written word, to a more dynamic intellectual environment, where rich ideas are explored via the mediums of picture, video, radio, and various forms of auditory and visual multimedia, we can expect to see a new combination of environmental stimuli, which will be interacting with our genetic predispositions and plastic-ish brains to show its unique pattern of 21st century hemispheric symmetry. Exciting, don't you think? 

 

Elisheva is a Brooklyn based intellectual seeker, podcast host, and dyslexia consultant. She’s on a mission to help parents, teachers and students shift their perspective of dyslexia from a limiting, deficit-based definition, to a holistic, strength-oriented perspective.  Find out more at http://www.elishevaschwartz.com/

Follow Elisheva @elishevaschwart

Tags: brain science, elisheva schwartz, hemispheric dominance, right brain left brain, structural asymmetries

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