Are you right-brained or left-brained?

One of the dumber questions around.

I think it’s safe to say that if you only had one hemisphere of your brain, you wouldn’t be functioning.

Of course, that’s not the point. But the real point is little more sensible. The whole idea of right brain vs left brain did come out of scientific research, but as is so often the case, the myth that developed is light years away from the considerably duller scientific truths that spawned it.

It is true that, for most of us, language is processed predominantly in the left hemisphere. But what is becoming increasingly more evident is that even the most specialized tasks activate areas across the brain.

In any case, I don’t think the real meaning behind this simplistic dichotomy of right-brain / left-brain has much to do with the physical nature of the brain. People hope by rooting the concept in something that is physically real, that they will thereby make the concept real. Well, I’m sorry, but the supposed scientific foundation for the concept doesn’t exist. However, what we can ask is, is the concept valid? Are some people logical, analytical, sequential thinkers? Are others holistic, intuitive, creative thinkers?

Yes, of course. This is news?

But I don’t like dichotomies. It should never be forgotten that people aren’t either/or. Attributes invariably belong on a continuum, and we are all capable of responding in ways that differ as a function of the task we are confronted with, and the context in which it appears (especially, for example, the way something is phrased). Rather than saying a person is an analytical thinker, we should say, does a person tend to approach most problems in an analytical manner? This is not simply a matter of semantics; there’s an important distinction here.

But there are other personal attributes of importance in learning and problem-solving. For example, working memory capacity, imagery ability, anxiety level, extraversion / introversion, self-esteem (in this case, meaning assessment of one’s own abilities), field-dependence / field-independence (field dependence represents the tendency to perceive and adhere to an existing, externally imposed framework while field independence represents the tendency to restructure perceived information into a different framework). Which attributes are most important? Is this in fact a meaningful question?

The fact is, different personal attributes interact with different task and situational variables in different ways. While it’s probably always good to have a high working memory capacity (the capacity to hold more items in conscious memory at one time), it’s more important in some situations than others. To be a “high-imagery” person may sound a good thing, but if you realize it’s measured on a verbal-imagery continuum, you can see that it’s a trade-off. Personally, I’ve never found being high-verbal, low-imagery a drawback!

The point is, of course, that different styles lend themselves to different tasks (by which I mean, different ways of doing different tasks). It’s not so much what you are, as that you recognize what your strengths and weaknesses are, and realize, too, the pluses and minuses of those abilities / conditions.

For example, a study of 13-year olds investigated the question of interaction between working memory capacity and cognitive style, measured on two dimensions, Wholist-Analytic, and Verbaliser - Imager. They found working memory capacity made a marked difference for Analytics but had little effect for Wholists, and similarly, Verbalisers were affected but not Imagers [1].

Thus, if your working memory capacity is low, in demanding tasks you might find yourself better to approach it holistically – looking at the big picture, rather than focusing on the details.

Once you recognize your strengths and weaknesses, you can consciously apply strategies that work for you, and approach tasks in ways that are better for you. You can also work on your weaknesses. An interesting recent study that I believe has wider applicability than the elderly population who participated in it, found elderly people who draw on both sides of the brain seem to do better at some mental tasks than those who use just one side [2].

Web resources

Cognitive style

There’s an article about cognitive style from a business perspective:

If you’re really interested in cognitive style, the Wholist-Analytic, Verbal-Imager inventory was constructed by R.J. Riding, and he’s written a, fairly scholarly, book, entitled “Cognitive Styles and Learning Strategies: Understanding Style Differences in Learning and Behaviour”

Left-brain / Right-brain

You can also read an essay by William H. Calvin, an affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, Washington: Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology?

And an article first published in the New Scientist on 'Right Brain' or 'Left Brain' - Myth Or Reality? by John McCrone.

This article originally appeared in the January 2005 newsletter.

  1. Riding. R.J., Grimley, M., Dahraei, H. & Banner, G. 2003. Cognitive style, working memory and learning behaviour and attainment in school subjects. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 73 (2), 149–169.
  2. Cabeza, R., Anderson, N.D., Locantore, J.K. & McIntosh, A.R. 2002. Aging Gracefully: Compensatory Brain Activity in High-Performing Older Adults. NeuroImage, 17(3), 1394-1402.


by NLP Northern Ireland

Rather than "dividing people" into right and left-brain oriented individuals why don't we practice the whole brain. When you involve all parts of your body and do physical exercises, while challenging yourself by learning a song or in any other way - you develop your brain. When I was training a rugby team we did a lot of whole-brain synchronisation exercises and the results were amazing. A very good and well structured article! keep up the good work.

But these details here seems to be telling me that I am wrong in many ways. I was under the impression that if we are right handed, then the left part of the brain is predominant and left handed means that the right hemisphere of the brain is doing all the processing. Thanks a lot for sharing!

Yes, this is what I meant in my passing reference "for most of us, language is processed predominantly in the left hemisphere": for right-handed people, language is predominantly processed in the left hemisphere, while left-handed people tend to involve the right hemisphere more. But this doesn't mean that one hemisphere or other is "doing all the processing"! Our brains have lots to do, and language processing is only one part of it. It would be a terrible waste if we only used one hemisphere!

Perhaps this would be a good place for me to reiterate that the enduring myth that we only use 10% of our brain is just that: a myth. Brains are huge spenders of energy; no species would persist in trying to maintain such a costly resource if it wasn't useful.