Here at BEAR I am always interested to observe the varied approaches taken by the design and creative team when presented with a brief. In translating it into a cohesive visual identity everyone will approach it from a different angle. Be it through linguistic exploration, visual interpretation, the usage of differing media, or a combination of these approaches. This got me to thinking about how the brain processes these differing influences, and spurred by a conversation at BEAR HQ about the notion of left-brain and right-brain dominance and its relationship to creativity, I did some research into whether this concept stands up under scrutiny.
Like the study of physiognomy in the Renaissance and its evolution into phrenology and various sub-branches of comparative anthropology, scientists, writers, sociologists, and even law-makers have sought to equate and predict our personality traits based upon our physical appearance. Though not as immediately observable as the shape of your nose or the distance between your eyes, the notion of a left-brain or right-brain dominance in people as indicative of personality traits, skills, and differences of interaction within the world could be seen to follow this historic line of thinking.
How did scientists first learn of this supposed propensity for the hemispheres of the brain to process information in differing ways? Discovered during the 1970s in the treatment of sever epileptics, neurobiologist Roger Sperry, who, in cutting the neural pathways between the left and right sides of the brain effectively split the brain of his patients into two. The goal of this pretty absolute and severe treatment was to quell the excess of electrical activity that triggers the seizures.
Through the conducting of various experiments that relied on both lingual and spatial cues, he discovered that the brain’s hemispheres operate with a separate consciousness and can process information independently of each other, when there are no neural connections between the two hemispheres. His ‘split brain’ subjects’ results showed that the ability to process language resides in the left hemisphere, and spatial in the right.
From Sperry’s initial findings, a type of pop-psychology grew (what some scientists would refer to as ‘woo’) ascribing the differing and opposing traits to the left and right brains – a dichotomy. The left was considered the seat of critical thinking, fine mathematical skills, language, and reason. Whereas, the right was the seat of visual-spatial processing, facial recognition, music, the recognition of emotions, and intuitive reason.
That is why it was assumed that left-handed people (and thereby right-brain dominant) are more inclined to be creative, more empathetic, and have a propensity to learning problems like dyscalculia and dyslexia. Whereas, someone who is right-handed and left-brain dominant would be logical, critical, and have better literacy and numeracy skills. However it cannot be as simple as this, as traits such as creativity are found in both left- and right-handers.
In fact, much like phrenology before it the left-brain/right-brain dominance concept has been almost entirely discredited. Our left and right brains work together complementing the processing of information, best explained by Carl Zimmer in Discover magazine, May 2009:
“No matter how lateralized the brain can get, though, the two sides still work together. The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the words, for example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is actually more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress.”
Our brain’s hemispheres have the ability to independently and concurrently process information, and Zimmer outlines in his article that perhaps this dominance can switch – much like how breathing through our nostrils alternates between left and right. Every time I take this online test, for example, I get a differing result stating the particular dominance of either my left or right brain. It is not that my brain has fundamentally changed, but it is the way I perceive the information that is changing, and this can be influenced by many external and internal factors – for example: is the room noisy, am I hungry or tired, have I just been involved in an activity that requires mathematical skills?
It takes both the left and right sides of the brain to process the information that we get from the world, solve a problem, draw a picture, and understand language. A person’s handedness isn’t necessarily going to automatically denote them more creative than someone who has the opposite handedness. However, this concept does make for neat shorthand and has helped to sell countless self-help books, online courses, and brain-training apps. Even here at BEAR our creative team regularly has a ‘right-brain breakfast’ to discuss and explore cultural and creative concepts outside the bounds of client briefs and current live projects.