The left-brain right-brain myth has been debunked by advances in neuroscience. But this myth is perpetuated by marketers and creates limiting personal stereotypes.
The left-brain right-brain explanation of personality is one of the more persistent myths about the brain.
This theory purports that there are two types of people — left-brained people who are analytical and right-brained people who are creative.
This idea made sense after certain discoveries were made about how the brain works 200 years ago.
But science continues to make rapid advances, especially in the field of neuroscience where new revelations have virtually exploded in the past few years.
Let’s take a look at how the left-brain right-brain theory came to be and compare that to the latest findings on the working of the brain.
Then we’ll examine why the left-brain right-brain myth is so popular and persistent — and why that’s a problem.
Left-Brain Right-Brain Dominance Theory
Our brains contain two distinct halves known as cerebral hemispheres.
These two halves are not mirror images of each other — our brains are asymmetrical in both form and function.
The two hemispheres communicate with each other via a band of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum.
In the 1880s, it was noted that damage to one half of the brain resulted in predictable changes in behavior and brain function. (1)
It was observed that language abilities resided in structures in the left side of the brain while areas that governed spatial abilities were found in the right side.
Fast forward to the 1960s when neurosurgeons were performing split-brain surgery on patients with severe epilepsy. (2)
Split-brain surgery involved severing the connection between the two hemispheres.
This drastic procedure worked to stop seizures, but the cost was often loss of specific brain functions. (3)
By carrying out experiments on these split-brained patients, neuropsychologists were able to determine which areas of the brain correlated with which functions.
It was discovered that each brain hemisphere was dominant for different kinds of behaviors. (4)
The right side of the brain was thought to be mainly responsible for spatial abilities, face recognition, visual imagery, and music while the left side handled calculations, math, and logical abilities.
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The head of this research, Richard Sperry, received a Nobel Prize for this work which further brought the left-brain, right-brain concept to the attention of the public.
According to the left-brain right-brain dominance theory, everyone has a dominant brain hemisphere and this is a major determinant of basic personality type. (5)
Typical right brain characteristics include being creative, expressive, emotional, intuitive, and artistic.
Left brain characteristics include being logical, analytical, and good at language, math, and science.
The illustration below sums up the pseudo-scientific theory of these two personality types nicely.
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Technology Confirms: There’s No Left-Right Dominance
The concept of left-brain right-brain dominance never had a strong foundation in science, and now this theory has been totally debunked.
Brain scan technology reveals that the two brain hemispheres communicate through the corpus callosum and work together to perform a wide variety of tasks.
For example, language processing, previously thought to be a left-brain activity, does not take place in any one side or region of the brain.
The left side of the brain processes grammar and pronunciation while the right side processes intonation. (6)
Of course, some people are better at languages than others, but this is not because they are left-brain dominant.
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In a recent ground-breaking study, neuroscientists scanned over 7,000 brain regions in more than 1,000 people analyzing brain activity patterns.
They found no evidence of left-brain or right-brain dominance. (7)
So now the current prevailing theory is that we use both sides of our brain as needed depending on the task at hand.
For most tasks, the brain recruits information from many parts of the brain via neural networks. (8)
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Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Persists
The scientific case against the left-brain right-brain dominance theory is strong.
It was always considered “pop psychology” by most in the scientific community and was never widely accepted.
While different personality types exist, it’s quite clear they have nothing to do with whether one brain hemisphere is more active, stronger, or more connected than the other. (9)
And yet this myth persists.
Here are four possible explanations as to why the world at large is reluctant to let this brain myth die.
1. It takes time for new information to become a mainstream idea, so it could just be a matter of time.
It takes on average 17 years for a new medical discovery to be adopted by mainstream medicine and even longer to trickle down to the general public. (10)
2. Generalizing and categorizing helps us make sense of our world.
Dividing humanity into two main personality types has a beautiful simplicity to it.
3. People yearn to understand themselves — why they are the way they are, and how they fit into the world.
They feel that the left-brain right-brain concept helps them do that.
For similar reasons, that’s why personality quizzes and daily horoscopes are always popular.
4. Understanding the brain and personality is extremely complicated.
Left-brain right-brain dominance seems like an eloquent theory that everyone can relate to on a basic level.
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The Downside of Believing the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth
Believing this brain myth seems harmless, but is it?
There are brain tests and quizzes, books, videos, self-help programs, workshops, online brain training, apps, and more that tap into this myth.
Some of them will only waste your time and money, but others will set you up with self-limiting beliefs.
Believing you can only be good at one set of skills can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It also has us looking at others through a left-brain right-brain lens.
This encourages stereotypical thinking and prejudice — “all artists are bad at math” and “engineers can’t be creative.”
Obviously this is untrue.
Our high-tech world did not get this way without people who were simultaneously analytical and creative.
The truth about how the brain works is more complicated than previously thought, but it’s also more interesting.
We aren’t left-brained or right-brained beings.
We’re more powerful than that.
We are whole brain beings.