Left and right brain? Beware this education myth

The mistaken belief that pupils are either left-brained or right-brained can be harmful in teaching, says Jonathan Firth

Jonathan Firth

Busting the education myth that pupils are either left-brained or right-brained

There are certain ideas about education that become embedded in our culture, despite a lack of supporting evidence. Such ideas can lead teachers and their students astray, and ultimately harm attainment – but may have the superficial appearance of being founded on neuroscience.

In 2002, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defined this type of concept as a neuromyth, which is "a misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for use of brain research in education and other contexts".

One neuromyth is the idea that one side of your brain houses creative skills while the other side is logical, and that everyone has a dominance of one side or the other. That is to say, the belief that people are either "left-brained" or "right-brained".

Specifically, it is commonly believed that: 

For example, according to one popular website, "the distinction can impact our personality and the decisions we make. For example, left-brain people are more organised and systematic. Right-brain people are more creative and intuitive".

This appears to be widely believed in education, with 91 per cent of UK teachers endorsing the concept in one survey (Dekker et al, 2012), as well as 71 to 86 per cent of teachers across a series of international replications (Howard-Jones, 2014).

A closely related interpretation of the myth is that most people’s thinking is dominated by their conformist left-brain, and that they would benefit from somehow unlocking their creative right-brain (Hines, 1987). And while it may be true that some people could gain from becoming more creative, this has nothing to do with one hemisphere of their brain being underused.

The neuromyth of left-brain and right-brain people

So, where does this concept come from, and what issues might arise from attempts to apply it in education?

The science 

Like other neuromyths, the left-brain/right-brain myth (LBRB) has elements of scientific truth that have been distorted and misinterpreted over the years. It initially became popular among those working in self-help and management training, and gradually spread from there to education.

There are some basic facts that the concept derives from. It’s true, for example, that our brains have two hemispheres, and that these have slightly different physical structures from each other. Researchers believe that this "hemispheric specialisation" is an adaptation that allowed human ancestors to get more processing power out of the limited space in the brain (Hopkins and Cantalupo, 2008).


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Furthermore, "split-brain operations" which surgically severed the connections between the two sides of the brain have demonstrated that the sides can operate semi-independently. In such studies, the left side of the brain tends to respond more rapidly to written prompts and the right more to pictures – and this makes sense, because certain language functions are localised in the left side of the brain (at least, in right-handed people).

However, the differences are minimal, and it is a considerable stretch from this finding to the suggestion that all of creativity resides in the right side of the brain. As Hines puts it: "The practical implications of these slight differences are small. It must be borne in mind that the hemispheric differences in speed on such tasks are rarely over 50 or 60 milliseconds."

The distinction is also not absolute – each side of the brain can actually process both language and images. And in addition, creativity is often based on language (eg, poetry), while images play a key role in logical and scientific thinking. So the differences found in language and image processing should not be generalised to "creative thinking" on the part of the right hemisphere, and "logical thinking" on the left.

Another inspiration behind the myth is the fact that most people are either left- or right-handed (and, to an extent, left- or right-eyed), something that reflects brain organisation and is partly genetic. This makes the idea that our brains, too, have a preference for one side or the other quite intuitively appealing.  

However, LBRB is widely recognised as a misapplication of the basic science (Hines, 1987). Here are some of the key points to note: 

  • The lateralisation of brain structure has no direct bearing on personality, preferences or psychological abilities.
  • Even if you knew for sure how your own brain hemispheres were organised (which most people don’t, even if they have been in a brain scanner), this information is not going to help you to study more effectively or make better life choices.
  • Logic and creativity are not clearly separate – the strict distinction between them is a cultural idea, not a neuroscientific one. Performance on tests of creativity and of logical thinking (eg, IQ tests) are correlated – those of us who are very creative also tend to have higher than average IQs.
  • People who are good at maths or science can be very good at visual and creative tasks, too (much of maths and science is highly visual). Likewise, people who enjoy art are not necessarily bad at logical thinking, and nor would it be an advantage to be so (performance across academic disciplines is again correlated, so people who are very good at art are likely, on average, to be better than average at maths and science, too).
  • Music, contrary to popular claims (eg, Zdenek, 1983), is not processed entirely by the right hemisphere, but is distributed throughout the brain.

In context

So what’s the big deal? As I see it, this myth can lead to bad classroom practice, flawed study advice and problematic labelling of pupils.

In terms of the latter, I have certainly heard instances of girls being labelled as "right-brained" on the basis that they enjoy art, and therefore being advised in the first two years of secondary school not to take science subjects in their later years in school. It is not hard to see why such advice is problematic.

Conversely, people who enjoy or are good at maths may be discouraged from trying creative subjects on the mistaken assumption that their brains "don’t work that way".

When it comes to study skills, many of the problems seen with the learning styles myth also apply here, with those labelled as left-brain thinkers conflated with "auditory learners" and right-brain thinkers with "visual learners".

In the classroom, teachers should avoid spreading LBRB and the related ill-conceived idea about a strict division between logical and creative people. And any attempt to cater for two "types" of learner during lessons would be a waste of planning time, and potentially counterproductive. Teachers should instead aim to support all of their students according to the principles of effective classroom practice.

Conclusion 

Overall, the idea that some people are logical left-brainers and others are creative right-brainers is a neuromyth. A student’s brain structure is generally unknown to both them and their teacher, and is, in any case, highly open to change via practice. The current organisation of a learner’s brain needn’t prevent them from becoming very good at new skills if they choose to work at them.

Rather than students labelling themselves in this way, it would be better for them to stick to evidence-based study habits and to choose subjects and tasks that they enjoy and that help them attain their goals.

Jonathan Firth is a psychology teacher, teacher educator, author and researcher, based at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland. This is a version of a blog post originally published by the university's school of education


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