What You Need to Know About the Myth of Left- and Right-Brained Learners
I think it was my sophomore year of high school when I first heard I was a “right-brained learner.” This label came to me courtesy of my guidance counselor, Mr. O’Toole, who reasoned that I would never do well in Algebra because I was “too right-brained”—meaning he thought I was naturally better at creative tasks and would struggle with anything analytical. His assessment conveniently dovetailed with my own self-image as a poor math student, which was further reinforced by a career aptitude test that showed I was best fit for a career in “color coordination.” (Is that even a job?)
While it’s completely true that I’ve grown into an adult with some crazy good color-coordinating skills and I enjoy creative, thoughtful work, I’ve learned that I don’t lack the ability to be analytical. After all, as an instructional designer for the past twenty-ish years, I’ve needed to be both creative and analytical in order to be effective. Shockingly, all signs point to the fact that I—along with everyone else—rely on and use my ENTIRE BRAIN!
Joking aside, the terms “left-brained” and “right-brained” refer to two personality types. These personality types assume that some people use the right side of their brain more, while others use the left side of their brain more. Right-brained people are supposedly more artistic, creative, thoughtful, and subjective, while left-brained people are more scientific, analytical, logical, and objective.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But there’s a problem with the whole left-brain/right-brain idea: it isn’t supported by any scientific evidence. It’s a myth. And yet this myth persists not only in pop culture but in academia and in modern workplace learning—coloring (there I go again) our perceptions of how people learn and grow.
So what do you need to know about the myth of left-brained and right-brained learners? Let’s explore this by taking a closer look at the basics, including a brief history of the left-brain/right-brain myth, and then at tips and resources for handling the “myth-believers” around you.
A Short History of the Left-Brain/Right-Brain Myth
We don’t really know when or where the left-brained/right-brained myth originated, but it’s not a stretch to see the ties between it and superstitions about the effects of left-handedness or right-handedness on a person’s health, longevity, and personality.
The modern interpretation of the left-brained/right-brained myth seems to have gone mainstream in the 1960s, probably due to research from doctors studying epilepsy patients. As a result of those studies, scientists formed the unfounded theory of left-brain or right-brain dominance, which held that one brain hemisphere is generally better developed than the other.
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, where subsequent scientific analysis using increasingly sophisticated brain imaging equipment has failed to yield any evidence in support of the left-brain/right-brain dominance theory. In fact, a study conducted in 2013 by neuroscientists at the University of Utah concluded that there is no evidence of individuals having stronger or weaker left- or right-brain hemispheres. And while certain functions are associated with the left and right hemispheres, people don’t use one side of their brain more than the other. Available scientific data shows that we use our entire incredibly malleable brains to form new connections and develop new skills throughout our lives.
How does this myth harm learners?
Like most myths, the idea of labeling learners as left-brained or right-brained seems pretty harmless on the surface. After all, some people do seem better suited for analytical tasks like coding or scientific research, while others gravitate toward and excel at creative, artistic tasks. Isn’t it helpful to have insights into your strengths and opportunities?
Well, yes, it’s helpful to give people space for self-reflection and self-examination. But the problem with stories like mine—a teenage girl being told by an authority figure that her brain isn’t suited for performing logical, analytical tasks—is that it gives power to an oversimplistic approach to learning that is both unproven and too biased to be of any meaningful help. Furthermore, it can encourage people to internalize misplaced beliefs about themselves that can then undermine their self-confidence and limit their potential.
How can I combat the left-brain/right-brain myth in my organization?
Ultimately the best way to counter any myth is to steer the conversation toward reality and science. Instead of talking about how different personalities or leadership and communication styles impact learning and development, talk about the kinds of behaviors people need to develop to be successful. From there you can explore evidence-backed methods for nurturing those behaviors in the workplace by, for example, providing training, building communities of practice, or creating mentorship or coaching opportunities.
In short, instead of focusing on the ways people perceive their own performance, give your learners support and tools to help them think critically and adapt their performance no matter their strengths or opportunities.
The myth of left-brained and right-brained learners is widespread, but thankfully so are the facts and resources to counter it!
The following are a few resources I consulted for this article and another related article from the E-Learning Heroes archives. I’m sure you’ll find these helpful for talking about this, and other learning myths, in your organization.
- Millennials, Goldfish, and Other Training Misconceptions: Debunking Learning Myths and Superstitions by Clark N. Quinn
- Debunking the Left-Brain/Right-Brain Myth
- The Truth About the Left-Brain/Right-Brain Relationship
- How to Bust 3 Common Training Myths
What are some other learning myths you’d like me to explore? How are you successfully combating the “myth-believers” in your organization? Share your stories, advice, and questions with me in a comment, below.
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I appreciate this article because it helps to dispel what you rightly call a myth. As Aristotle noted over two millennia ago, we are rational beings, and rationality includes both creative and analytical aspects. These are both components of what it is to be human. Thus, gearing our learning to encompass the entire person rather than segmenting it out into creative vs. analytical components seems the make sense to me. As an example, I heard a presentation recently where the link between music and learning was discussed. A CAT scan of the brain of someone listening to music engaged the entire brain, not just one hemisphere of it. Of course, we all know from our own experience that including music can greatly enhance the learning experience and effectiveness for the learner. Hence, it f... Expand
I love myth busters! Progression requires an open-mindedness. It is so sad that someone labeled you as "right-brained" and set you up for failure in Algebra. Even *if* something is harder for one than another, I like the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson as it applies here: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.” In my experience, those who struggle and overcome make the best mentors, because they know what it is like to struggle. Do you have any meta-analysis research studies that you suggest? I love research, and your article peaks my interest on this subject. Also, could you include the references to the 1960s studies? This topic is quite intriguing. I studied dozens of articles on... Expand