Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Truth Behind the Left-Brain Right-Brain Divide

This week a quiz was floating around the pages of Facebook titled “Which Side of Your Brain is more Dominant? The 30-Second Brain Test.” As with most fun, fast, facebookable material, it had tons of shares and comments from various users, describing their results and what that says about them. And as your trusty brain-truth public servants, we just couldn’t let this go.   

The left-brain-right-brain myth is one of the biggest ones out there, and as far as facebook quizzes go, this one is about as scientifically sound as the perennial favorite, “Which Sex and the City Character are You?”
But the left-brain right-brain question is far more pernicious, because people take it to heart and use it in their ongoing attempt to explain their own strengths and weaknesses--specifically whether they’re a more “creative” or “rational” thinker. We hear about this theory in our work with students all the time, and frankly, we’re sick of it.

Here’s the deal. Dr. Jeffrey S. Anderson, MD PhD, and his team of researchers at the University of Utah recently debunked this theory, testing over 7,000 areas of the brain in over 1,000 subjects, and concluding that everyone in the study was using his or her brain equally throughout the course of the study. There wasn’t a clear left-brainer or right-brainer among them. (Here is the article, if you want to read it!) What’s more, being left- or right-brained doesn’t explain why you write poetry or like working with numbers. In an article for LiveScience, Anderson explained, "It is not the case that the left hemisphere is associated with logic or reasoning more than the right. ...Also, creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left."

To put this to the real test, this morning we got into this facebook quiz action for ourselves. Surprisingly, (or unsurprisingly if you know this is all bunk anyway), both of us got the following result: “You use both halves of your brain equally!” (The real surprise was that Hunter is actually an exact half-Charlotte, half-Miranda. Katie totally called the Miranda, but it turns out he’s a bit of a romantic too!)

But back to the quiz at hand. The truth is that the two sides of your brain are not at odds; they’re working together all the time to help you do everything you need to do each day. You’re not left-brained or right-brained. We’re all full-brained.

Unless we’re not. Here’s where things get really cool. Just because certain functions occur in certain parts of your brain does not mean they’re stuck there! In the last fifty years it has become clear just how flexible every part of the brain is. For example, in a stroke, part of your brain becomes damaged and the ability to do what that part of your brain did, whether it’s motor function or speech, is lost. In decades past, the prognosis was bleak: after a stroke, you just had to learn to live without speech or use of the right side of your face. Now, through targeted therapy, we know it’s possible to regain all lost function by training the remaining parts of the brain to take it over. You can rearrange your brain real estate whenever you need to.

If rebuilding your brain around damaged areas isn’t impressive enough...what if part of your brain wasn’t even there? What if you had to have half of your brain removed? That’s exactly what happened to a little girl named Cameron. Suffering from a rare condition called Rasmussen’s syndrome, Cameron was gripped by massive seizures every single day that made her life miserable. Doctors at Johns Hopkins suggested a radical therapy: remove the diseased half of the brain. Obviously, with half of her brain now gone, Cameron woke up from the surgery having lost massive amounts of function, including being totally paralyzed on her left side. Amazingly--and this is just how flexible the brain is--with targeted physical therapy Cameron retrained the remaining half of her brain walked out of the hospital four weeks later. It has taken a lot of work on Cameron’s part, but she is now getting great grades at a regular school. You can see Cameron’s story here:

And for more awesomeness, you can find some truly amazing stories of the brain’s flexibility in Dr. Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself.

The point is, your brain is so amazing that it could take anything that seems like a “left-brain” or “right-brain” skill and move it to the other side whenever it needed to. It’s not about choosing sides. But when we do, we hold ourselves back. Like with any other theory about our intelligence, the idea of being left-brained or right-brained supports the notion that we are hardwired to be naturally good at some things and not others. And as we know, what you believe matters. Just like Hunter believes in fairy tale romance. But also a good power lunch.

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