Right-Brain / Left-Brain: Fact, Theory or Myth?

What is the right-brain/left-brain theory?

The basic premise of right-brain/left-brain (pop-) psychology is that each side of the brain is said to control different types of thinking. For each of us, one side of the brain is supposed to be dominant. So if the left side of you brain is dominant, by the theory, you would be a logical, methodical, objective, analytical scientific kind of person. However if the right side of your brain is dominant you would a more creative, artistic, intuitive, expressive, subjective kind of person. Knowing what side of brain is dominant is presumably helpful in explaining why we might meet problems with certain tasks and indeed what we might do to balance out the ‘one-sidedness’. The theory of brain-dominance is something that frequently crops up in discussions in my confidence-building workshops. Sometimes these kind of theories provide comfort because on first glance seem to offer a way to explain and structure our experience. So let’s look at the evidence.

Considering the evidence for the right-brain-left-brain

Supporters of the theory might argue that this is supported by scientific evidence, and yes of course, as with many pop-psychology theories there is a grain of truth. However, when reviewing evidence, it depends on how old the research is, whether up-to-date research has challenged initial findings, whether the original research is generalizable to the general population and who is interpreting the evidence. It’s common to see newspaper journalists report evidence-based research in a headline grabbing way. There is no space for the fine detail.

The right-brain-left-brain theory is based on the work of Roger W. Sperry in the 1960s. In psychology it’s known as  the the lateralization of brain functionOur brains are comprised of two hemispheres connected by a structure called the corpus callosum which facilitates inter-hemispheric communication. So it the normal, undamaged brain, there is ‘dialogue’ between the two sides. Sperry studied epilepsy patients and discovered that seizures were reduced or ceased when the corpus callosum was cut. Through a series of experiments, Sperry (and others) were able to determine which parts of the brain were involved in various functions, including language, maths, drawing and so on.

This is the basis for the pop-psychology theory. I heard one self-styled new age guru claim that ‘old psychology is dead’ and we need to usher in the new psychology. Apparently he didn’t see the irony of citing research from the 1960s. It’s also important to correct the misnomer of two brains. A neuroscientist would not use this terminology, unless to criticise the theory. We have one brain with two hemispheres. So if you see or hear someone waxing lyrical about ‘right brain’ this and ‘left brain’ that, chances are they probably don’t have any qualifications in neuroscience or psychology.

Apart from the passage of time, there is another key point to be made here. The research was based on people with epilepsy and who had their corpus callosum cut, therefore ending communication between the two brain hemispheres. This hardly sounds like a sample representative of the general population. It’s a pretty select group.

So what does up-to-date research have to say?

Contemporary evidence for the right-brain/left-brain theory

Inevitably there has been a wealth of research published on neuroscience since the 1960s. Unfortunately, much of this will not find its way into newspaper headlines of pop-psychology books.

In an attempt to better understand brain lateralization with a view to treating medical conditions (rather than myth-busting), scientists at the University of Utah in analysed more than 1000 brains to see if people had dominant sides. They found no evidence. On average, both sides of the brain were essentially equal. The study’s lead author, Jeff Anderson, explains that while it is true some brain functions occur in one side or the other (language: left; attention:right), ‘[P]eople don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection’.

The overall conclusion from this an other up-to-date research is that the two sides of the brain communicate through the corpus callosum to work together to perform a variety of tasks.

Why does the popularity of the right-brain/left-brain theory persist?

Searching online I found some interesting and amusing exchanges between the supporters of the right-brain/left-brain theory and its critics. In response to a discussion of up-to-date, peer-reviewed research from leading neuroscientists, the striking thing is that supporters of the theory offer personal anecdotes to ‘disprove’ the research. The subtext is, ‘that’s all very interesting but it doesn’t apply to me’. Here’s one example:

When I am studying math or chemistry intensely I find the left side of my brain hurts, Whereas when I am writing a report or something along the lines of literature, the right side of my brain hurts. It’s a nice pain though. I was not aware of this right brain left brain theory until I started noticing this happening and researched it for myself. Amazing really.

This inspired a particular pointed (cruel) response:

You should see a doctor. It’s not amazing, it sounds more like you’ve sustained a stroke.

In a follow-up comment, the same ‘wag’ makes another important point:

Wow, from some of the posts . . . you would think the world is full of neuroscientists that are all incapable of doing a simple internet search for information.

This last comment is quite telling, It highlights a phenomenon in social psychology, in particular the subject of stereotypes. A stereotype is a generalized, over-simplified packet of knowledge about something. We can see in the realms of prejudice where are a stereotype can act as a filter for new information. Anything that contradicts the stereotype is rejected. So, yes, all this neuroscience may be very interesting but if it contracts a strong belief in the right-brain/left-brain theory, then the scientists must have made errors. The results have to be rejected. The fact that the research went through a rigorous review process does not matter. At the same time the supporter of the right-brain/left-brain theory will overlook the lack of a generalized sample for Sperry’s research. By time the belief is firmly held, the whole question of research may not even matter anymore. ‘My head hurts on the left hand side when studying maths, that’s good enough for me’.

There is also the question of exposure to information. Magazines and reality TV pundits like to offer a ‘bit of science’. For the purpose the ‘science’ needs to be easy to comprehend. So idea of right-brain/left brain keeps popping up. The more a thing is repeated leads us to question whether ‘there must be something in it’.

How to interpret right-brain/left-brain tests

Common magazine pencil-and-paper test of right-brain/left-brain begin with the assumption that there is specialization. This is written into each of the questions in these tests. The results are foregone conclusions. Reducing human experience to a binary is always problematic. Nature never creates a dichotomy. That’s something we do to help explain thing. Black and white categories are easier to process. Rarely do these over simplifications map onto real-world experience. So at the very best, treat these tests as a bit of fun

A better strategy is to spend time taking stock of your own abilities and strengths. It’s easy to look for evidence to contradict the test’s verdict. Instead, balance things out and look for any evidence that contradicts the result. Think of your life experience. The longer you spend on this phase, the more evidence you will find to contradict the results and the more you will realize is what modern neuroscience tells us: you’re using both sides of your brain pretty much equally. What you will have is a better picture of yourself as resourceful, psychologically rounded human being.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThat’s got to be a boost to your confidence and self-esteem. Much better than believing you’re living only half of the human experience.

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Feedback Improves Performance Irrespective of Age

Recent research into learning supports an established principle that  task-related feedback can significantly improve performance. More importantly it goes some way to challenge the negative stereotype that age-related decline is inevitable. Feedback can improve performance irrespective of age.

Published in Psychology and Aging , investigators at Rice University (Houston, Texas) found that taking tests (and getting feedback) is more beneficial for learning than just studying information or simply re-reading it. The benefits were observed regardless of age, level of intelligence or whether or not people attend college. Jessica Logan, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rice, said the findings show that training can help older workers obtain and maintain job-related information, adding the study also revealed” that employees regardless of age can greatly benefit from testing activities as a way to sharpen their on-the-job skills”.

The research emphasizes that learning is an active process rather than a passive absorption of knowledge. In my work providing academic coaching, I suggest techniques that increase interest and engagement with learning materials rather than passively reading through notes.

The research also has important implications for older people no longer in work too. Getting involved in new learning and getting feedback can have important implications for cognitive functioning. Learning is a lifelong process. Learning new skills increase confidence and esteem at any age.

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Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing! All Gender is a Drag!

Subscribe to Dr Gary Wood's psychology and coaching blogOne of the things to emerge from the Caster Semenya controversy (in the 2009 World Championships) is the misconception that the terms sex and gender mean the same thing. They do not. Numerous sources, including ones that should know better, have been waffling on about ‘gender tests’ when what they actually mean is biological sex tests.  Sex as a categorization is a biological designation. It refers to the physiological characteristics that differentiate males and females.

Gender is the social interpretation of biological sex. It refers to socially constructed roles in the form of behaviours, activities and other social attributes that any particular culture or society considers appropriate for women and men. So, “male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories. Now there are also wide gender variations with any culture. For instance, do rugby players have the same gender as librarians, stamp collectors and ballet dancers? They may do, they may not, but that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on their biological sex. Within any population there will be an enormous range from ultra ‘feminine’ woman, to the ‘averagely’ feminine woman, to ‘neutral’ looking/acting  women, to slightly ‘butch’ women to overtly masculine women. The same applies to men and gender.

The idea that we could gender test athletic competitors is quite ludicrous. If an individual behaves in a way that does not support the gender stereotype, so what? The basic test for gender is what a person perceives themselves to be! Mostly we use the clumsy black and white categories but the way we live our lives betrays the inadequacy of the labels.

Equally ludicrous is the notion that gender can be divided into simplistic binary categories.  Numerous factors influence gender identity such as race, class, culture and so on. Oscar Wilde once commented that football is a game for ‘rough girls not delicate boys’. It’s possible to be male and not sporty and still be masculine. It’s possible for a female to like football and still be feminine. Modern gender theorists now talk about femininities and masculinities rather than as monolithic constructs. No two people have identical genders as no two people have identical views of the world. They may be very similar but never identical. Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.

Gender may be normal (i.e. ‘the norm’) but it’s never natural. It’s what society expects but not necessarily what nature ‘intended’. We have to work hard to reduce the ambiguity between men and women. All gender is a form of drag. There’s no such thing as a ‘natural looking women or men’. Nature always gets a helping hand. Femininity is ‘perfected’ by the addition of make-up, waxing, plucking, hair-styles and clothes and codes of appropriate ‘lady-like’ behaviour. Show me a female Hollywood film star with hairy arm pits and I’ll show you several front page tabloid pictures expressing dismay and disgust that ‘she’s just letting the side down’. Just watch young men affecting a swagger of a walk and the posturing that they’ve seen from rappers, action heroes and their peers. Gender is all an act. It’s a game and you have to play by the rules.

So why do newspapers continue to write about ‘gender’ tests. Well it’s just that ‘sex tests’ sounds ambiguous too. It could refer to the act of sex or the biological status. The solution to this dilemma appears to be to hijack the word ‘gender’ and distort its meaning. Ultimately it’s sloppy journalism that only serves to add confusion. There is no amount of saliva, urine, blood or any other bodily secretion that can be tested to determine gender. We can test for biological sex and infer how a person is likely to behave in a given culture if they ‘play by the rules’, but there is no biological test for gender.

Read confidence and coaching posts by Dr Gary WoodIf you liked this post on gender you might like this: Gender Stereotypes and Confidence and see also links below. Also please consider using the ‘like’ button below and share this post with others in your network.

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Oh No They Can’t! Oh Yes They Can! Self-Help Mantras With Evidence-Based Psychology Can Help!

Self-help affirmations are a common techniques designed to improve a person’s sense of worth but many self-help books offer the technique in uniformed and uncritical way. Unfortunately our inner critic is not so forgiving. So, if you endless repeat ‘I am a gifted, lovable, dynamic, outgoing person’ over and over again your inner critic may just respond each time ‘No you’re not! NO you are not!! NO YOU ARE NOT! NO YOU ARE @&%*ING WELL NOT!’ So, it’s no surprise that new research has found that low-self esteem felt worse after repeating positive statements about themselves. However, ‘let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater’. As welcome as this research is, affirmations can still be helpful if you use them in line with evidence-based psychological insights. Let’s look at why and how.

As I explain in Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It, the problem is that many self-help gurus do not have even a fundamental understanding of attitude change, although many have recognised that the over-blown affirmations do not work. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a negative person and tried to offer suggestions you will know why. Invariably your attempts will be met with ‘yes but, yes but, yes but’. As we know ‘yes but means no!’. It’s like aiming ‘well intentioned missiles’ at the Starship Enterprise when the deflector shields are up. You ain’t gonna get through!

The secret is to recognise that attitude change is often a slow and subtler process. If we combine the psychology of attitudes with some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) and insights from Positive Psychology then we do have a recipe for change. All of these already drawn on a body of research whereas the ‘repeat things you don’t believe’ approach, does not!

The secret is to use small incremental steps that are difficult to disagree with. Focus on continual improvement. So for instance, compare these two statements:

  1. I am a lovable person
  2. I am becoming a more lovable person

Statement 2 is still not perfect but it is not so easily discounted as statement 1. Furthermore, statement 1 is most likely cancelled out by the existing statement running over and over in a person’s head, which says ‘I am an unlovable person’. This has already set up a perceptual filter that looks for evidence to support this statement and filter out anything to the contrary. This how negative attitudes and stereotypes are maintained. Statement 2 can easily be tagged on as a ‘but’:

  • I am an unlovable person BUT I am becoming a more lovable person

So if you are running negative statements, what you need to do first is spot them and use a method to cancel them. Just saying ‘Cancel’ makes the process more conscious. You can then substitute a ‘becoming’ statement.

Another technique is to add an ‘up until now clause’ which opens up the possibility of change. For instance:

  • I’m crap at maths

This becomes:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths

Now add the ‘but’:

  • Up until now I’ve been crap at maths but I’m improving

After you’ve used this for a while, your inner critic is  much more likely to be receptive to the affirmation:

  • As I work at it, my maths is improving

Whereas, ‘I’m fantastic at maths’ is likely to be met with the immediate response: ‘No you’re not, you’re as thick as pig sh*t’!’ Clearly, your inner critic recognises the lie and tells you so and you end up feeling worse. To make progress you need to write affirmations that are unlikely to be rejected.

It’s only really possible to scratch the surface in this post, but hopefully I’ve demonstrated that it’s not self-help affirmations that are at fault, it’s how they are written. Knowledge of evidence-based psychology of attitude change (and therapeutic techniques) can help us to structure statements, that slowly peel back the defences.

One of the main motivations for writing ‘Don’t Wait. . . Swim Out‘ was to dispel self-help myths and put some evidence-based insights back into equation. Here’s a short video that explains more about my approach to affirmations and turning that inner critic into an inner coach:

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Flirting & the ‘Golden’ Age of Gender

In examining flirting tips from the various main stream pop-psychology books on body language I’m struck by the prevalence of gender stereotypes and the absence of the acknowledgement that not everyone is heterosexual and not everyone wants to have children. Surely flirting need not depend on these.

Many tips involve ‘men making themselves more masculine to attract ‘delicate’ women’ and ‘women making themselves more ‘delicate’ to attract ‘big strong, rugged, men’. This all presupposes that we all want the same thing. Some women like ‘skinny’ men who wear glasses and hate football. Some men, small in stature, like full-bodied, amply curvaceous women. Some, delicate, petite, perfectly made-up women, may prefer women in sensible shoes to a hunk in football boots. Some rough and tough, deep voiced, sporty men don’t necessarily fancy women at all. Yes I know it’s all very obvious, so why the hell don’t the pop-psychology books acknowledge it? One reason is that the classic body language books are from ‘the golden age of gender’ when the world was a very different place and, sadly, gender stereotypes do sell.

Different people are attracted to different things and gender roles have moved on enormously since the 1950s. So telling every women to become like a 1950s housewife or a screen siren from the golden age of Hollywood is hardly like to work for all. Telling every man that he needs to ‘butch-up’ and take up forestry  is hardly like to work either, unless of course you know someone who’s into that sort of thing.

Flirting is about having fun. Flirting is about putting yourself across in a ‘good light’. It’s not about aping outdated stereotypes and it’s open to all! So the best advice I can give is:

  • Relax
  • Be yourself but be your best
  • Smile and have fun
  • Avoid any flirting tips that get you to act out a stereotype unless that’s what you are really into.

Links (to other ‘gender-based’ posts):

The Apprentice & The Pink Pound

Following on from my post on homophobia in The Apprentice, it is interesting to note that the ‘Rebranding Margate‘ episode was broadcast last night (BBC1, 13/05/2009) without the alleged comment that sparked the controversy.

However, although the homophobia was not proudly on display, the stereotypes most certainly were. It seems that the myth of the pink pound is still offered as fact. Throughout the discussions the rationale offered as ‘they’ have more disposal income than the average person. So are there no gay men and lesbian women currently struggling with the economic downturn? If not, then I think we have found the answer to the worldwide recession. We all go gay! It would be great. Lots of holidays with people actually displaying good taste in their holiday attire. No worries of unemployment. Businesses would be immune from poor trading. The pink pound would be stronger than Sterling unless of course our European brothers and sisters bring out the pink Euro, then we’d all be f***ed again!

The ‘pink pound’ on one level may seem like positive stereotyping. However, it does tend to gloss over the fact that gay men and lesbian women are from all walks of life, which includes lower paid people with less disposable income.  It has a parallel with assuming that all Jews are wealthy. Clearly any segment of the population incorporates more diversity than a simple pigeon-hole (stereotype) dictates.

As the mighty pink pound is yet to appear at the Bureau de Change, it looks like it might have to be a holiday in Margate this year!

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Getting Fired Up About Homophobia in The Apprentice

His Dark Homophobia (Materialized)

I was very disappointed that a great production of Phillip Pullman‘s His Dark Materials at The Birmingham Rep had to be marred by a little negative stereotyping. In Part Two, the  angels were portrayed by the two male actors as rather ‘delicate’ and fey enough to get ripples of laughter. I was discussing the portrayal with someone in the bar at the interval who protested that ‘the angels are supposed to be asexual’, so why did it get a laugh and one did one bright spark in the audience whisper rather too loudly  ‘they must be gay‘.

For me portrayal was unnecessary and would have been the equivalent of having two black angels sing ‘De Camptown Races’ and saying ‘Yes Masser, No Masser’.

I would be interested to know from whom the idea for ‘camp’ angels came? Was it the playwright (Nicholas Wright) or the directors (Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdail).  I wonder what Phillip Pullman thinks about it, given his criticisms of C.S.Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, as sexist and racist. The difference it that the Lewis books need to be understood in the historical context of the 1950s. Maybe that’s no excuse, but it does beg the question: What excuse could there be for a 21st Century production to use cheap, lazy and unnecessary stereotyping?

Poem: The Anatomy of Doubt

(Thoughts on sexual and gender diversity)

Hoo-hoos, minkies, willies and winkies,
Who are the normals and who are the kinkies?
Are you heroic Brad or homely Janet,
Or a sweet transvestite from a diff-er-ent planet?
Is is straight down the line, or simply confusing?
Is it all in our genes or just something we’re choosing?
Is it just variation or unholy perversion?
Propagating the species or a fun diversion?
Are you bound by tradition or torn by the doubt,
That we’re the ones our parents warned us about?

From: Sex, Lies and Stereotypes: Challenging Views of Women, Men and Relationships, by Gary Wood, 2005. Published by New Holland (out of print).

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Gender & the Social Consruction of the Sewing Machine