Thursday, December 28, 2006

So are you left-brained or right-brained?

You are both and you are neither, of course.

I sometimes refer to big-right-brain graphic artists, people whose creativity and visual sense I much admire but with whom I sometimes have trouble communicating verbally. But even those folks function well enough in the verbal and computational world to conduct their day-to-day business.

In any case, the problem is not that the world is full of different and interesting sorts of people. That’s a good thing. The problem is with the expressions “right-brain” and “left-brain” in the first place.

The subject came up on a mailing list a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what I contributed to the thread:
Just a general caution on this whole right-brain/left-brain thing.

These phrases entered the language because of the title of a single book (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain). The same thing occurred with Catch-22. But there is a significant difference. The phrase catch-22 is a literary allusion and is an arbitrary, otherwise meaningless, string of words. There is no twenty-twoness to a catch-22.

There is, though, an implied biological basis to the leftness of left-brain activities and an implied biological basis to the rightness of right-brain activities. And therein lies a danger—dare I say a catch-22?—that the much more complicated true biology of what goes on where in the brain will run smack up against the more general concept that is being adduced.

In a business book, where deep, accurate, scientific thinking is probably not what readers are looking for, this may not matter. But I would caution editors to be careful of these phrases in more scholarly contexts. Yes, we all understand that the brain has a mode that involves intuitive, experiential, subliminal learning and information exchange, wherever in the brain this actually takes place, and that we call this right-brain activity. And we all understand that the brain has a mode that involves linear, rule-based, putatively rational, conscious thought that we call left-brain activity. But we need to be clear that the physiology doesn’t reflect the labels and perhaps we also need to be on the lookout for better labels to use in the future.
Words matter.

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