Brain and Body

Left-Brained vs. Right-Brained? Myth Debunked

November 11, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Illustration of left brain and right brain
Photo credit: Allan Ajifo/flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Despite what you've been told, you aren't “left-brained” or “right-brained.”

A time-old way of categorizing someone’s personality is to determine whether that individual is “right-brained” or left-brained” — right-brained people are thought to be more spontaneous, creative, and artistic, while left-brainers are associated with being more logical, detail-oriented, analytical. But before you go blaming your inability to pass basic algebra on the shortcomings of your left brain, you should probably know that the whole right-brained vs. left-brained thing is just a popular myth.

So where did this whole left brain vs. right brain idea start? It was born back in the 60s when a Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychologist named Roger Sperry cut the hemisphere-connecting brain fibers in a number of epilepsy patients to reduce their seizures. Then he decided to run an experiment to compare how the right and left hemispheres processed information differently, and his study marked the beginning of the right-brain left-brain myth that would persist through the years.  

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Over decades, his findings became misinterpreted as the dominant ways in which each brain hemisphere functions, particularly in personality tests and self-help books. However, there’s not ample scientific evidence to support personality types based on dominant hemispheres. In fact, there’s been plenty of evidence to refute it, but the truth rarely seems to make its way to the mainstream media.

For instance, in a two-year study at the University of Utah, neuroscientists analyzed the brains of over 1,000 people aged 7 to 29. They found no evidence that people specifically used one brain hemisphere dominantly. Throughout the course of the experiment, the participants were actually using their entire brain equally, the researchers found.

However, it’s important to note that brain lateralization is real. This means that, for certain functions, specific brain regions are preferred over others. But this doesn’t justify the categorization of entire brain networks as right-brained or left-brained to describe a personality.

Jeff Anderson, the study’s lead author and professor of neuroradiology at the University of Utah, told the Guardian, “The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of 'left-dominant' or 'right-dominant' personality types. Lesion studies don't support it, and the truth is that it would be highly inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other.”

There can be pockets of heavy neural traffic in certain key regions, but it doesn’t imply that all great scientists and mathematicians must be left-brained while all artists and writers are right-brained.

"I'm disappointed with some aspects of civilization," Neil deGrasse Tyson explained in a video interview with Fast Company. "One is our unending urge to bypass subtlety of character, thought, and expression and just categorize people.” He says to refrain from labeling him as “right-brained” or “left-brained” — Tyson is just “brained.”

“If you want to understand who and what a person is, have a conversation with him," he advises.

So unfortunately, if you’re artistically-challenged or can’t solve a math problem for your life, neither hemisphere of your brain is to blame.

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