by Betsy Hill
I came across a posting on a Linked-In Group I belong to that caught my attention, as the nerdy brain-fascinated person that I am. It contained an explanation of the ways that our brains apportion the work we ask them to do between the right and left hemispheres. The article then went on to advocate training left-brained and right-brained people in different ways, without actually making the case as to whether there are left-brained and right-brained people. The article also advocated performing some fairly sophisticated assessments prior to engaging with an audience to determine their propensity for analytical approaches (presumably the dominant approach of left-brained people) vs. more creative and image-driven approaches (presumably the dominant approach of right-brained people). The author put a lot of work into his thought process and his article. Unfortunately, such an approach is neither right- nor left-brained. It’s simply wrong-headed.
The myth originated from a decades-old study on “split-brain” patients. These patients had their corpus callosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of our brains) severed, effectively cutting off the right- and left- hemispheres from each other. This drastic surgery was justified as a way to treat severe, intractable seizure disorders. In these studies, the scientists found that certain brain functions are lateralized to one hemisphere or the other. Although no evidence was found that certain individuals have stronger left- or right- brain networks, a popular belief arose that a person who is better at analytical work must have a stronger and better functioning left hemisphere, while a more creative person must have a stronger and better-functioning right hemisphere. It was an easy step from there to assume that these two types of people would learn differently and therefore needed to be taught differently.
The current research on brain dominance and right-brain / left-brain doesn’t support the concept of teaching preferentially to different sides of the brain. The two hemispheres of the brain always work in tandem. Simplifying the brain into a left/right dichotomy also ignores the fact that our brains have many different processes and functions and areas of specialization that are used to learn. For example, thinking of brains only as right or left-hemisphere dominant ignores the role of emotion in learning, as well as the power of learning through multiple modalities to help the brain build and strengthen connections. It ignores the differences between procedural and declarative memory. Understanding how the brain learns IS critical to effective learning and training. There are a lot of good books that look at the brain and learning, such as Brain Matters by Dr. Patricia Wolfe, that translate competent neuroscience into practical strategies for teaching and learning.
Thinking of ourselves as right- or left-brained can actually lead us down a wrong path and into thinking that we can’t develop a variety of cognitive skills. One danger of labeling a student as right- or left- brain dominant is that of potentially decreased self-efficacy. If a student is told that one side of their brain is strong and the other is weak, they can start to believe that they can only be good at what their “dominant hemisphere” is responsible for. For example, a teacher labeling a student as right-brained might lead the student to believe they won’t be good at things the left- hemisphere is “responsible” for, like math.
If asking if someone is right- or left-brained is the wrong question, what is the right one? The right question is what an individual’s unique learning profile is, or what their cognitive strengths and weaknesses are. Cognitive skills are the processes that are the foundation for learning and they don’t reside in one side of the brain or the other. However, unlike hemisphere dominance, they do predict success in school and life and give teachers and trainers meaningful ways to personalize instruction.
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