Revealed: The Truth Behind the Left Brain-Right Brain Myth

Vishal Kataria

(Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash)

It's arguably the most popular theory of all time.

The split-brain theory states that the left hemisphere of your brain is logical, analytical, and boring. It associates with vocal intelligence and gets you through life acceptably. Left hemisphere dominated people do well at school but possess restricted creativity.

The right hemisphere is creative, imaginative, and disorganized. It harbors non-vocal intelligence and is not given enough prominence. Right-hemisphere dominated people often feel guilty about how they think and are generally labeled as ‘learning-disabled’.

Think of iconic personalities.

Edison’s teacher said he was “too stupid to learn anything”. Ludvig van Beethoven’s music teacher told his parents he was “too stupid to be a music composer”. Einstein’s teachers thought he was mentally handicapped because he couldn’t read until he was seven.

But did you know that Einstein actually had amazing grades in school? From age six, he stood first in his class.

If we dig deeper, we will find that most stories about inventors considered stupid by their teachers are fabricated. Stories about their perceived dumbness were probably conjured by bad students.

The split-brain theory was the work of Professor Roger Sperry. It won him the Nobel Prize in 1981 and spread fast through the corporate world. It offered a plausible explanation about why some people could come up with new ideas easily while others struggled. Executives in creative fields started demanding toys, beanbags, and game rooms to fuel their right brains. Their cavalier attitude was accepted as part of their creative eccentricity.

Organizations started conducting meetings in which people were told to switch the left brain off.

But can we switch a side of our brain off? Is creativity really a result of right-hemisphere thinking?

No. Let's debunk the myth.

A Deeper Understanding of The Mind

In 1998, Brenda Milner, Larry Squire, and Eric Kandel published an article, proposing a theory called the ‘intelligent model.' It provided a more accurate view of creativity. Since then, Sperry’s two-sided brain theory has been junked by neurologists in favor of this model.

In the intelligent model, analysis and intuition work together in all thought modes. No left-brain, right-brain; just the whole brain. Studies prove that we use both sides of our brain at all times.

In Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter, authors Dr. Barry Gordon and Lisa Berger explained the whole brain concept. It is summarized below.

From when you are born, your brain absorbs things, breaks them down, and puts them on shelves. As new information flows in, your brain runs an internal search to see whether it fits with information stored before. When it finds a match, the previous memories come off the shelf, combine with the new one(s), and a thought is born.

The breaking down and storing process is analysis. The searching and combining is intuition. Both are necessary for all kinds of thought and idea generation.

Even a mathematical calculation requires intuition. We use it to recall the symbols and formulae previously learned, and apply them to the problem.

Even in a familiar situation, intelligent memory combines analysis and intuition in form of learning and recall.

Familiar situations are not challenging. Working creatively on them… that’s a challenge. Developing new ideas… that’s like opening a can of worms.

What Stifles Creativity?

Why do we suffer while working on new ideas? Why can’t we think outside the box?

Because of 2 reasons.

One is our desire to create something from scratch.

We pressurize our brain to think of something which has never been thought before. Today, chances of that are as bleak as spotting a UFO. Truly creative people use ideas from other avenues to inspire their own thinking.

Two is our subconscious obsession with neatness.

You see, ideas are not formed in linear and neat patterns. Like roadways and waterways in a city, they are interconnected. Yet, when you work on a vague outline, the brain focuses on neatness. Then all hell breaks loose.

Let’s say you start with point 1 in an outline. After twenty minutes of brain numbness, you eventually move to point 2, and so on. You insert sub-points (a, b, c) in each main point. Then you realize that point 3b would be better as point 2c. You draw an arrow to point where it should be. This happens again.

Now your outline gets messy. Your mind forces you to keep it clean while your imagination tries to express itself. You daydream and doodle. This makes your outline messier. Eventually, you crumple the paper (or wipe the whiteboard) and start again.

Outlining is useful when you have a fair idea about the end goal. But what about times when you want to do something fluid? What about when you don’t know where you might end up?

Mind Mapping

Enter mind mapping. Originated by Tony Buzan, this technique deploys the whole brain for generating and organizing ideas.

Do words or predefined outlines dominate your mind? Or do impressions, keywords and images swim through it, sometimes associating themselves with each other?

It’s the latter.

Here is are 5 steps to create a visual mind map (credit - Michael J. Gelb):

  1. Begin your mind map with a symbol or picture representing your topic. Starting at the center opens your mind to a complete three hundred sixty degrees of association. Pictures and symbols are easier to remember than words. They enhance your ability to think creatively on a subject.
  2. Write down keywords. Keywords are information-rich ‘nuggets’ of recall and association. Write just one keyword for each point. This frees your brain to make numerous creative connections. It also disciplines you to focus on the most appropriate keyword, refining your thought precision and minimizing clutter.
  3. Connect the keywords with lines originating from your central image. By linking words with lines (‘branches’), you will clearly display how one keyword links to the central idea or to another.
  4. Draw smaller nodes to elaborate on each keyword if necessary. You can draw dendrites that hold the concise text to elaborate on the keyword.
  5. Use colors, pictures, dimensions, and codes for greater association and emphasis.

Below is a more refined visual mind map. It presents my thinking for a recent Facebook Live video. Notice the use of colors to highlight the emphasis on more points, and how they are connected with each other. The numbers denote priority. (I know, it's not a work of art. I'm terrible at drawing.)

My mind maps are still far from sophisticated. But I’m working on them. I also will use thinner markers to make the diagrams clear. These visual mind maps help me bring together seemingly unconnected ideas and develop a balanced brain.

How You Can Generate Ideas

We have compromised deep thinking for feeling more productive today. We prefer scraping the surface so that we can get more done. But to unearth a good idea, you have to boil the ocean. That is when you can develop potent 'insight flashes' like successful people.

According to William Duggan“two steps precede the flash: “examples from history,” when you explicitly study what others have done before you, and “presence of mind,” when you clear your brain of all expectations of solutions. In a clear mind, selected examples from history combine as insight. The last step is resolution, when the flash gives you the will to act on the idea despite the obstacles you face.”

Move from the split-brained theory to the whole brain theory. Instead of thinking that one hemisphere is functional, get them both to work cohesively. This habit will give you a distinct advantage over others. The ability to generate new ideas consistently will make you indispensable.

Creativity uplifts your mood. It helps you discover the beauty of lesser noticed aspects of life. It is an immensely satisfying feeling. So get started with visual mind maps and watch your intelligence surge.

What steps do you take to harness your creativity? Do share them with me in the comments. I would love to hear from you.

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