The Left-Brain, Right-Brain Misconception

by David · 19 comments

What We’ve Learnt From Science

We’ve learnt from science that we use different parts of our brains to process every day actions. The left part of the brain is believed to process all things technical, whereas the right is believed to process all things creative. I don’t challenge what science has taught us, however I challenge the wide spread belief that we are either predominantly right-brain or left-brain individuals.

I suspect this belief has spread because of two reasons. First, believing in the sentiment is easy. It’s a get out of jail free card for not being good at an activity processed in the ‘less dominant’ part of the brain. Second, it’s an excuse to not try: “I’ve never bothered with anything artistic because my mind is technical” or “I’ve never been good at anything technical “I’m an artist” I’m aware that not everyone is a mathematician or an artist. I’m taking two ends of the extreme to illustrate a point.

Being great at both things technical and artistic would make most people happy and there isn’t a reason why this isn’t possible. Both parts of the brain are engaged more often than common belief.  A great deal of overlap exists between activities considered technical and artistic. I feel a perspective shift is needed to give ourselves the best chance of ever being able to use the full potential of our brains.

Etymology of ‘Technical’ and ‘Art’

  • ‘art’ comes from the latin word ‘artem‘  or ‘ars‘  meaning: skill as a result of learning or practice
  • ‘technical’ comes from the greek word ‘tekhnikosmeaning: skilled in a particular art or subject

These definitions are almost synonymous because they share the notion of skill. In the Greek and Roman societies any activity which involved the manufacture of durable objects was described a skill, this included everything from painting to building architecture. Everything we consider technical or artistic the Greeks and Romans considered skill.  Why do we differentiate between the two?

Art is One Big Math Equation

I try my best to sneak some drawing into my schedule every chance I get. I’m shocked to discover how much math is involved. Nevertheless, this is a great example why the Greeks and Romans were more precise in categorising ‘technical’ and ‘artistic’ under the same umbrella. Here are some things an artist needs consider when drawing:

Art is Maths

Throughout the process, when creating art, measurements are taken of space, distance and angle. Drawing is a skill developed partly by improving one’s ability to measure. This skill, widely considered creative, proves to be the opposite when broken down into its component parts. How these components are combined is where creativity comes to play.  There’s no denying that one of the most creative processes known to man, drawing,  involves lots of left brain activity.

It’s All Just Skill

I like to think of everything as skill. Whether it’s technical or creative doesn’t matter to me. There’s an incredible amount of technicality to art and there’s an artistic side to all things technical. I don’t distinguish between the two because I don’t believe there is a difference. Everything we learn is a result of observation and application. I don’t limit myself to activities considered  ‘technical’ or ‘creative’ because I believe I am capable of engaging in both. In fact, I believe we are all capable. The first step is recognising that learning is a skill in itself and once we understand its components its application is available to us universally.

  • Christina

    This is great piece! I’m glad you’ve brought this idea to people’s attention. In this world today, we’re often taught to just use one side of the brain but with curiosity and a desire to learn and understand, one can master how to align and make use of both sides. The Polymath’s of the past did it so why should we stop now?
    The advertising industry is actually looking for people who can think ‘diagonally’…these people have the ability to think both logically and creatively in an effortless way….I would employ everyone to delve into new ways of thinking and read as widely as they can….the world has so much to teach us and there’s still so much to learn!…. 😀

    • You make some great points and I don’t disagree with anything you have said. When I mention polymaths, I’m often told ” they are a thing of the past and that it’s not possible in todays world” My view is that polymaths are needed more today than ever before and it is just as possible now to be competent in a wide range of diciplines as it was before. We have flood of information infront of us today and better tools to help us manage it. We need more people that can think “diagonally” as you said beautiful so that we can connect more dots.

      Thanks for stopping by Christina. Great input!

  • Interesting article… Yes there is a certain amount of mathematics in art (and indeed in nature), such as the Golden Ratio. I’m looking forward to seeing your early drawing efforts (you must keep your promise!). I do a lot of programming and consider some of my work to be quite elegant/creative. I used to draw quite a lot, but don’t consider myself able to design things. Maybe it’s something I should try to get into so I don’t have to rely solely on web designers. It’s seems to me a lot of what they do is just creative stealing anyway… Nice talking “at” you the other evening, by the way 😉

    • Design is the same as any skill. You just have to break it down into its core components. Learn what makes a good design and practice. Some people get things quicker than others, but there’s no question in my mind that you can do it. All you have to do is dedicate each attept to being better than the last.

      It was great speaking to you as well. I’m sure we’ll speak again

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  • Ah, this is good stuff. I can safely say that I have never considered myself to be more inclined towards technical side or creative. I simply can’t even remember, which side of the brain answers for what and always mix them up. Hope that doesn’t mean I am not inclined towards any of those two!

    People used to tell me that I am creative and never imagined seeing me in technical specialty. I went and did what any self-respecting teenager would: completely the opposite. While I don’t exactly regret my choice, ironically, I feel myself gravitating towards creative side.

    But in the end, there is always a mix between the two and only truly obsessive people would draw the distinctions at every step and avoid the actions which do not “conform” to their left- or right-“sidedness”. The majority is indeed simply lazy.

    Many Web programmers do not bother do learn even principles of Web design, since they aren’t “creatives”. Not many think it through to realize that most of what makes Web design (layout, positioning, etc.) is their precious left (or is it right? I am writing from memory and got those mixed up again) side of the brain. The best is still the one who can build stuff all the way from top to the bottom.

    I was guilty of this myself “back in the day”, but I’m learning.

  • I couldn’t agree more. I think the biggest issue is categorization. There are too many of them. As a result we’re pushed to pick a corner to join. This makes no sense to me as I see no corners in the world.

  • While I can see why some people would like to identify with one side of their brain or another, I do think that it is an excuse for them to not try certain activities. Some people really do have certain brain activity that makes them better at certain things.

    For example, they did a brain scan on Chess masters and their brain activity was all extremely active in the same areas. This means they have an advantage over other people in playing the game. However, this doesn’t mean that other people who don’t have the same activity can’t play well. They just can’t play to their level.

    I agree with you that everything is a skill. Saying you don’t want to try something because it is either technical or creative is really limiting.

  • Really enjoyed this article and being a ‘science girl’ at school I believed that I couldn’t be good at the creative subjects as well. It was only later in life when I decided to break free and write books that I realised how versitile the brain is.

  • Interesting David
     and I both totally agree and utterly disagree with you!
    I agree that art (often) is maths. Take music for example, even to a  non mathematician like me the patterns (which are maths aren’t they) are clearly audible in most music.
    The technique required to be a good artist in any modality is definitely a technical skill (the clue being in the term).
    And while I agree that it’s vital for us to try and have a certain level of skill in most areas, and for some people that really isn’t hard, I completely disagree with you that we should become a Jack-Of-All-Trades if we clearly have a predisposition in a particular direction.
    Now, while there are probably many people who would say that they think Damien Hurst actually should have tried harder and become a bricklayer, few would say the same of Mozart or even David Bowie.
    Yes, I agree that most of the time most of us are using both sides of our brain at once, but I think thats a different thing from squashing a square peg into a round hole.
    If the peg is play dough of course, you stand a chance…

    • left-sided people love categorising everything, but its really simple, just learn that you CAN jump from a to c

  • Hi again David
    The brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor is far more articulate than I could ever hope of being on the subject

  • Juliano

    If you understand the ‘left brain’ right brain’ descriptor from a neuroplastic way–ie., that we are NOT pre-determmained even genetically, then it is easy to grasp that what it may mean is this: since being very small we are FORCED to go to an ‘education’ system whose main emphasis is on the so-called ‘3 Rs’ ‘reading, writing and arithmetic–all disciplines we can call left-brained. Whereas drama, music, art, and other ‘right brained’ capacties of learning are demoted.

    hence this very CULTURE–its ‘education’ system and node of operation glofifies the ‘logical’ aspect of the brain and mind so as we can become ‘successful consumers’

    So it is rather THIS situation rather than some pople are ‘not artistic’–MAYBE they would be scientific AND artistic and vice versa if this system didn’t create a dichotomy of the mind which it does!

    • reggy

      I agree completely. but I’m pretty sure there is a dominate side of you’re brain (however slight) when you’re born, the same way you’re right or left handed

  • Reggy

    People do have dominate sides of the brain, but that doesn’t mean they don’t use the other side.
    You can strength the connection between them by using the other side more, but one will probably remain more dominate. however that doesn’t mean a left brained person can’t be a good artist and vice versa

  • did not read the article, but
    dont know if you realise the left part is actually more right brained.

    Left image maps a 3D space, and if you like partially contains non-linear projection – right brainer domain (myself included).

    right image has a set of blobs which allow themselves to be classified and segmented, which layered on top of another (not in space) – definitely more left brained!
    Colours have nothing to do with that, left brained losers!

  • Iritiri

    I have a simple way to tell if you can use both at the same time. Using assians creed [or something like what I am about to describe]. I was very bored staring at the start menu- the memory log has a dna sequence thing spinning- the part I am looking at has 2 separate ones that are slightly off kilter to one another, one half is light the other dark. Now depending on whether you are using your right or left brain they will be spinning towards or away- for a couple seconds there I was able to get them to spin opposite- one towards and one away.. Anyways, try it out! I am curious to the achievable-ness of this- and what this would help develop, besides a headache lol

  • Iritiri
  • Iritiri

    And to leave a third comment.. The article I posted before has a debate about the information, read the comments, there are some logical points.

  • dm

    Great article. I never understood how anyone could buy into the brain dominance theory. It is completely nonsensical and counter intuitive. I like that you brought up how intrinsic math is to visual art. I have a degree in fine art and having actually gone to art school I have studied the golden mean, composition and so on.

    The generalization that goes along with the left brain left brain stuff is what really irritates me.

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