‘left vs. right brainedness; does it apply to writing’
In a previous post of mine
“left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY”
I began by saying:
An animated discussion with an acquaintance the other day got me to thinking about the concept of left vs. right brainedness (known by scientists as lateralization of brain function) and how it affects people. Clearly, it is a fact of one’s makeup that is extremely important. There is much to be contemplated by the layperson trying to understand himself or herself. It seems to affect us so profoundly.
No doubt, the terms are often used loosely, and while I am not an expert, there seems to be much confusion, with concepts getting tossed around by people who feel that this or that trait is dominant in their makeup. …
I have zero expertise and cannot do more than speak from experience and my own speculations: my experience as it seems to corroborate the basic ideas; my speculations about what this might say about creativity.
I then went on to tackle the subject from my own layman’s vantage point. I am certain that I am left brained.
What follows are excerpts from that post in which I try to relate the concept to creativity, and discuss its applicability to the writing process.
— Roger W. Smith
An online chart I consulted
Left Brain vs. Right Brain
shows the following:
Left Brain Functions: Speech and language, logical analysis and reasoning, mathematical computations.
Right Brain Functions: Spatial awareness, intuition, facial recognition, visual imagery, music awareness, art, rhythm.
There is a problem with psychology extracted from science. It often becomes pseudoscience. Which is not to say that the schema is unsound, or that the scientific findings (and I am not a scientist) are unsound.
But, someone who glances at the chart may think, left-brain people like myself are nerdy, pointy headed analytical types who don’t have pizzazz and are too uptight, too straight-laced to be able to be spontaneous or creative. Whereas right-brain types are intuitive persons into music, art, and rhythm who are much more creative.
A lot of people think that being logical means one is inhibited and incapable of creativity and to be creative you have to be kind of nutty like a Salvador Dali. This is a superficial, misleading view.
I believe that this is a fallacy, a serious one, and that it can lead to a profound misunderstanding of what creativity involves. To repeat, it’s not the schema that’s at fault. It’s that misinformed people don’t interpret it properly. As a matter of fact, the internet posting indicates that “It is possible to be analytical/logical as well as artistic/creative and many people are.” (What is not said, which is a serious oversight, is that most creative people are analytical/logical.) The posting also indicates that it is not true that analytical people cannot be creative.
Note that the internet posting indicates that typical right-brain occupations include politics, acting, and athletics. “Acting,” one might say, “that’s creative. Proves my point. Right-brain types are creative.”
Two of the occupations listed, politics and athletics, are not in the creative category. And, actors, while they may have a lifestyle one associates with creative types, are not creative people. It’s the playwrights, screenwriters, and directors who are creative.
The posting indicates that right-brained types are “intuitive,” whereas left-brained types are “logical.” Meaning that poets are right-brained? How about writers in general?
I’m not sure about poets, because I am not knowledgeable about poetry. But, I do know literature and great writing. Most writers — I will go out on a limb and assert it — are left brained.
Think of a writer such as Milton (poet!), Tolstoy, Melville, or Joyce laboring to produce a great work of art. Take the example of Joyce. A genius at language. Who labored about four years over Ulysses and seventeen years on his final novel, Finnegans Wake. The sequencing, the choice and order of words, were all. It is a master of language engaged in the most challenging exercise of exposition imaginable, drawing upon all his left-brain resources.
The schema associates right-brained people with musical talent. Perhaps at strumming a guitar or enjoying acid rock. But, this is very misleading; nowhere in the schema is there any indication that left-brained people may have a capacity for music. But, it is noted that left-brained people excel at mathematics.
It has been known for a long time that people with innate intellectual ability when it comes to abstract mathematics are often great appreciators of classical music. And, what’s more important, I am certain that most of the great composers were left-brained. Think about Beethoven endlessly revising his compositions. Working out the inner logic of his symphonies until it (the “musical logic”) seems preordained and inevitable. That is left-brained thinking, unquestionably.
People use words like “creative” and “intuitive” too loosely. Left-brainedness does not preclude creativity, far from it.
My mother provides an example. Her biggest intellectual strengths were reading/writing; communication/conversation. She was left-brained. She loved literature. She wrote very well. She remembered the books she read in great detail, as she also did conversations, incidents, and people she knew from the remote past. And, she was highly intuitive. It was the type of intuition a poet might have. She was great at picking up on subtleties, as poets (and also novelists) do and noticing or recalling little, telling details, in contrast to what is seen in “big picture” right-brain types.
A key to categorizing the mental or intellectual “cast” of person such as my mother is not to apply an adjective such as instinctive, intuitive, or artistic to that person from an a priori vantage point and then attempt to make it fit. It is, rather, to ask, how does that person habitually cogitate, communicate, and so forth? My mother excelled at writing and conversation. She was a born writer who never became one professionally. My father, to give another example, was a professional musician who showed talent from a very young age. Did that make him right brained? The answer is, definitely not. His writing demonstrated where his strengths lay. He wrote beautifully, whenever it was required of him. He had a gift that seemed remarkable for exposition, for making things clear, and for presenting his thoughts cogently, which is to say logically, both in conversation and writing.
My own career as a writer illustrates some of the above points. I was blessed with innate ability when it comes to language and exposition and raised in a family where these attributes were customary and essential. Yet, I slaved for years to hone my skills, beginning with rigorous writing instruction as a student and continuing with professional writing.
As a beginning professional writer, I often despaired of getting things right, meeting deadlines, being able to write to spec, and so forth; and labored for much longer than anyone might conceive to write short pieces for publication.
What I have found over the years as I have become more skilled and my productivity has increased, is that there is still a process which I go through in most cases. I start out with an idea for a piece of writing, I get some ideas down on paper. Leaving aside the question of research, which is a major undertaking in itself in the case of most expository pieces, I begin writing and it usually goes reasonably well. I am able to make a start (and am much more adept at this than in my earlier years as a writer when I labored over leads). Then, there is a long process of building upon that initial stab at a piece, of incremental additions, of qualifiers, rewriting, rearranging and recasting of thoughts, and of trying over and over again to get it just right, to get the words and sentences to cohere. It’s sort of like completing a jigsaw puzzle.
People think creativity means inspiration. Yes, it does; and no, it doesn’t. Meaning that most great works were produced after prodigious labor and endless refining — leaving aside the extended apprenticeship, years of study of models of excellence and of beginning or trial efforts, that a creative genius must undergo before achieving mastery. And, the works themselves do not just spring like rabbits out of a hat. Endless toil and labor go into producing them, during which the artist is not sure of the outcome. The best insights often come when you’re thinking hard, which means working hard, to perfect a piece, and they often come near the point of completion.
For a while, one’s writing seems muddled, but it begins to take shape. Still, one knows that it’s not anywhere near completion, to being in finished form. One experiences frustration. But, the subconscious continues to work. One goes back to the piece, and on the tenth draft or so (literally) — if not the fifteenth or sixteenth — one feels the piece beginning to cohere and to have an inner logic: that it works. One has gone from being a logician of sorts (a logician of words and sentences, trying to work out their desired sequence) to an “artiste” (used sardonically), a creative writer, as they say. One experiences true creativity, which is very pleasurable. But true creativity is not possible without careful preparation and planning, without drudgery. This is not just true of a Roger W. Smith, it was also true of James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert, and Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy.
Didn’t I already say it? I belong in distinguished company. I’m left-brained! As were they.
The theory is that people are either left-brained or right-brained, meaning that one side of their brain is dominant. If you’re mostly analytical and methodical in your thinking, you’re said to be left-brained. If you tend to be more creative or artistic, you’re thought to be right-brained.
This theory is based on the fact that the brain’s two hemispheres function differently. This first came to light in the 1960s, thanks to the research of psychobiologist and Nobel Prize winner Roger W. Sperry.
The left brain is more verbal, analytical, and orderly than the right brain. It’s sometimes called the digital brain. It’s better at things like reading, writing, and computations.
According to Sperry’s dated research, the left brain is also connected to:
thinking in words
The right brain is more visual and intuitive. It’s sometimes referred to as the analog brain. It has a more creative and less organized way of thinking.
Sperry’s dated research suggests the right brain is also connected to:
We know the two sides of our brain are different, but does it necessarily follow that we have a dominant brain just as we have a dominant hand?
A team of neuroscientists set out to test this premise. After a two-year analysis, they found no proof that this theory is correct. Magnetic resonance imaging of 1,000 people revealed that the human brain doesn’t actually favor one side over the other. The networks on one side aren’t generally stronger than the networks on the other side.
The two hemispheres are tied together by bundles of nerve fibers, creating an information highway. Although the two sides function differently, they work together and complement each other. You don’t use only one side of your brain at a time.
Whether you’re performing a logical or creative function, you’re receiving input from both sides of your brain. For example, the left brain is credited with language, but the right brain helps you understand context and tone. The left brain handles mathematical equations, but right brain helps out with comparisons and rough estimates.
General personality traits, individual preferences, or learning style don’t translate into the notion that you’re left-brained or right-brained.
One does not have to be an expert to use a concept from science, medicine, or psychology to motivate (so to speak) and inform a piece of writing, to provide a conceptual framework or background. Someone familiar with the writings of Walt Whitman, Proust, or James Joyce — to provide three examples which come to mind — would realize this. Developments in science and human psychology (and, in Whitman’s case, new inventions) intrigued and inspired them, as writers. They used science heuristically and metaphorically.
The main point or thrust of my essay is to show the simplistic notions of creativity some people have. My piece is very well grounded in experience and in careful observations by me of my own mental processes and the thought patterns of people closest to me. No one can fault it as a piece of writing. I am not hoping to win a Noble Prize as a pioneer in brain research.
A question? Are these your words?
Doesn’t matter if you disagree. What difference does it even make if you’re right-brained or left-brained? Not my own words: here is the source:
Also, here is another article from Psychology Today, by Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D. and G. Wayne Miller:
Left Brain, Right Brain? Wrong
This popular theory lacks basis in solid science. The story of an urban myth.
Posted Jan 27, 2014
If you doubt that the left brain/right brain theory of personality is widespread, try Googling it sometime. You’ll get millions of hits: books you can read, videos you can watch, tests you can take, advice from (supposed) experts you can follow, courses you can take, and so on. The idea that the left side is “logical and analytical” and the right is “intuitive and creative” seems to be natural law.
In fact, it may be the poster child for pseudoscience – something that looks like science but isn’t.
Neuroscientists have known for a long time that research does not support such sweeping claims about how people differ in their left and right sides, or hemispheres. The functions of the hemispheres are in fact different, but these differences aren’t what the popular culture holds to be true — the differences lie in how each side processes very specific kinds of information. Example: The left hemisphere processes details of visible objects whereas the right processes overall shape. The left hemisphere plays a major role in grammar and decoding literal meaning whereas the right plays a role in understanding verbal metaphors and decoding indirect or implied meaning. And so forth. Hardly the sort of stuff that can guide your life!
The left/right story has its roots in a series of 16 operations in the 1960s and 1970s conducted by surgeons working with Roger W. Sperry, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology. The doctors sought relief for very sick epileptics by cutting the corpus callosum, the largest structure connecting the left and right hemispheres. The epileptics did find relief — and in studying them after their operations, Sperry confirmed cognitive differences between the two sides and then disclosed of his findings in the research literature. Word reached the mainstream culture, and newspapers and magazines began to pay attention.
The New York Times Magazine in 1973 published an article, We are left-brained or right-brained, that began: “Two very different persons inhabit our heads, residing in the left and right hemispheres of our brains, the twin shells that cover the central brain stem. One of them is verbal, analytic, dominant. The other is artistic…” Two years later, Time magazine featured the left/right story. In 1976, Harvard Business Review published “Planning on the Left Side and Managing on the Right” and the following year, it was Psychology Today’s turn to trumpet the idea. The 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that Sperry received for his split-brain research opened the floodgates.
The popular narrative about the left brain versus the right brain has several major flaws. As we have noted, the functions of the two sides of the brain have been mischaracterized. But more than that, the two sides of the brain always work together. And, crucially, people don’t have a “dominant” left or right hemisphere. We don’t think primarily with one part of our brain, which may be in a tug-of-war with other parts.
Within science, warnings against over-interpretation of Sperry’s results were sounded even before he won the Nobel Prize by Brenda Milner, of the Montreal Neurological Institute, and Stevan Harnad, founder of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, among others. Sperry himself warned that “experimentally observed polarity in right-left cognitive style is an idea in general with which it is very easy to run wild… it is important to remember that the two hemispheres in the normal intact brain tend regularly to function closely together as a unit” in an essay published in the journal Neuropsychologia 30 years ago.
article continues after advertisement
But warnings from scientific circles published in small-circulation research publications do not always reach the wider culture (consider, as but one example, the many warnings about the dangers of smoking that scientists issued for years before the 1964 Surgeon General’s report finally got the public’s attention). And even if such warnings were circulated widely, they may not have been heeded. It’s sometimes difficult to override the power of a simple and seemingly logical narrative that offered answers in the age-old quest for understanding ourselves and others — and also practical applications for everyday life. The advent of the Internet with its power to reach and inform – and misinform – essentially canonized the left/right story. As an aside, we would note that because of its complexity, the brain in general is susceptible to myths. Other popular examples include the claim that we use just 10 percent of our brains (actually, every region of a healthy brain is used, as brain scanning demonstrates) and that even moderate amounts of alcohol kill neurons (excessive drinking can, however, damage another important brain structure, dendrites).
I wasn’t writing a post about brain functioning or neurochemistry. That should have been obvious.
But, in this post, I did reference a post of mine on my Roger’s Gleanings site
“left vs. right brainedness; and, CREATIVITY”
in which I went into the topic more fully.
In the Roger’s Gleanings post, I did try to assess left brain vs. right brain findings per se. But I tried to make it clear that I was not an expert, and was trying not to write a scientific treatise, but to use the concept heuristically to understand better my own mental processes, so to speak.
The post you are commenting on here, which is a shortened version of the other post, focuses more specifically on how this might apply to writing and creativity.
You ask, “What difference does it even make if your right-brained or left-brained?” My answer: A LOT. Maybe the terms or science aren’t absolutely correct, but there certainly is a difference in cognitive styles and mental processing among different individuals. Left brain vs. right brain, the concept of such, got me thinking about this and lead me to valuable insights. Please criticize my writing if you wish in terms of what I said, not someone else’s theories. I think what I say is coherent and totally valid.
To give just a couple of examples. My best friend in college became an MD. He was brilliant. But he could not learn foreign languages. He was terrified by the foreign language requirement. I helped him pass it. I wrote all his papers.
What seemed to be the case was that remembering language and grammatical rules, conjugations, vocabulary, and details of whether you use le or la, un or une threw him into a state of panic or confusion. Whereas, I found that I could not do chemistry, that I couldn’t make any sense whatsoever out of pictorial or graphic representations in textbooks or presentations, and I could barely do dissections in biology lab, whereas for my friend, such things came easy and organic chemistry, a stumbling block for many pre-med students, was piece of cake for him.
Yet, I excelled at algebra.
I have perceived such distinctions continually throughout my life. As I thought about them more, I began to understand my own mental processes better. I do what is called linear thinking and am detail oriented.
What you did not mention is the main point of this particular post: how people have major misconceptions about the creative process.
I have a question about the sources you are relying upon.
The posting at the link
says “Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA, COI on January 18, 2017 — Written by Ann Pietrangelo”
These do not sound like leading authorities in brain neuroscience
And, Psychology Today. Is that a leading source for scientific findings?
Roger Sperry was a Nobel Prize winner.
It’s not that I am an authority. It doesn’t matter insofar as my blog goes. But, if you wish to weigh in with comments questioning the validity of scientific findings, you should consider and evaluate the sources you are relying upon.
It seems apparent that you took a few minutes to Google the topic and came up with something that — you were happy to find — contradicted the main scientific assumptions underlying my post. I wasn’t attempting to prove anything scientifically, but I found Sperry’s concepts useful. Your “research” and knowledge are no more informed than mine.
Did you ever hear of the “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” by the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist? I am certain you haven’t. His book got a lot of praise, but the acceptance of his theories was by no means unanimous.
The knowledge and findings about brain structure and function (and the right versus left hemispheres) are by no means settled or definitive. But such a book shows that such concepts are still of great interest for what they show about thought patterns. Why do you dismiss my post with such contempt? Or should I say, ignorance? It was derived from valid issues and findings, which though not conclusive, are certainly worthy of consideration — in this case, as a heuristic device which informed my post, the conclusions of which did not seem to interest you.
Why are you always so angry and defensive? And you don’t have to be so haughty telling me to evaluate my sources. Can anyone ever disagree with you without your having a hissy fit….does everyone have to always be in agreement with you or, if they aren’t, get insulted by you? You need to calm down.
This IS a comment I just added. … can’t take it anymore.. By “it,” I mean your getting so defensive with me all the time.
Why are you always so angry and defensive? And you don’t have to be so haughty telling me to evaluate my sources. Can anyone ever disagree with you without your having a hissy fit….does everyone have to be in agreement with you or, if they aren’t, get insulted by you? You need to calm down.
I think it’s a fair question, who is having the “hissy fit” here? If you read and reflected upon my responses to your comments, you would see that they are written (as is true of my writing in general) lucidly and in a thoughtful manner.
Re your asking, “does everyone have to be in agreement with you or, if they aren’t, get insulted by you?” I don’t of course feel that way. I reread this post out loud to my wife the other day. I said to her, I’m very pleased with it and I felt in my own self-appraisal that it was very well written. It makes observations worth considering cogently and persuasively. That’s enough for me.
“General personality traits, individual preferences, or learning style don’t translate into the notion that you’re left-brained or right-brained.”
Are you saying this, or did you merely cut and paste without attribution?
I am suspicious of the simple way left and right handedness is viewed. I think it’s a lot more complicated. I am very left-handed and creative, BUT I am a very logical person who is (intuitively) pretty good at math.
It probably or certainly is a lot more complicated, Luanne. I don’t know what left vs. right handedness has to do with it. I do know there is something going on with differences in cognitive and information processing styles. If you were (are) logical and good at math, I am certain — this sounds like me — that you are “left brained.” Or, at least we process information similarly. Because we are both writers. We think in sentences and by making associations. All writers do this. It means laboring to get the words right and to think of just the right example to use.
Re your prior comment below:
I don’t of course feel that way. I reread this post out loud to my wife the other day. I said to her, I’m very pleased with it and I felt in my own self-appraisal that it was very well written. It makes observations worth considering cogently and persuasively. That’s enough for me.
You missed the point altogether and have shifted it into my observations being an appraisal or criticism of your writing. Look at my comments again and you’ll see they had zero to do with whether you write well. You don’t always have to be defensively claiming what a great writer you are in response to comments that have nothing to do with this ever claimed otherwise. I gave you an alternate viewpoint and, instead of saying, “Oh, that might be interesting,” you immediately respond in an accusatory tone (nothing new here), slam me for using what you deem to be poor sources. and then go into yet another defense of your “well written, cogent, and persuasive” essay. It seems that you must have some insecurities about your writing if you feel compelled so often to exclaim how well done it always is.
And by the way, you wrote all of a fellow student’s papers in college? How ethical was that? Isn’t that considered cheating? That’s not something I would brag about in a public blog.
I feel that you missed the point, not me.
My point was that my “well written, cogent, and persuasive” essay can stand on its own without my being an expert about bilateralization of brain function.
You attempted to weigh on this issue by Googling it and cutting and pasting quotes from anything but authoritative sources. Did you even look to see who the “experts” you quoted were, what their credentials were? This makes you yourself appear to be misinformed and makes your input virtually worthless. But the post was about creativity, not brain science.
What you obviously thought, and intended, was, I will weigh in with my own “research” into the latest scientific findings to prove that Roger’s post is (was) wrong.
I was NOT, as I have tried to explain, writing a scientific essay, but was using the concept of left brain vs. right brain (developed by a Nobel Prize winner) heuristically, to say something about CREATIVITY. You spent a few minutes on the Internet Goggling and cutting and pasting.
“Left Brain, Right Brain? Wrong: This popular theory lacks basis in solid science. The story of an urban myth,” by Stephen M. Kosslyn, Ph.D. and G. Wayne Miller, appeared. in Psychology Today, not a medical or scientific publication; it is rather intended for lay or popular readership.
Re “The left brain/right brain theory” by Deborah Weatherspoon and Ann Pietrangelo:
The article was written by Ann Pietrangelo. Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer who writes about health and wellness
This article was “medically reviewed” by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA, COI. Yes, a Ph.D. but in what? She is a nurse.
Then you launched into a personal attack on me which had nothing to do with the post and was uncalled for. (I have deleted some of the petty personal comments.) This is enlightening? Yes, my writing is very good, if I may say so.
Regarding my having written French papers for a friend in college (actually he wrote them, in English; I translated them into French), I am proud that I could do this so well and I have always felt very good that I could help him — it was like rescuing a drowning man. Can’t believe this would offend you and that you can’t see what a good deed can mean to the doer and the recipient. This bothers you? Is there anything that doesn’t?