Arts & Culture The Diversity Issue

Left-brained or right-brained? Actually both!

According to the left brain–right brain dominance theory, people have a dominant side of the brain.

Growing up in a household that emphasised the importance of education meant that I eventually associated myself with my school grades. A straight ‘A’ report meant I was on the right track. As I grew older and schoolwork became more challenging, my problem was surprisingly with the arts – subjects I was made to believe were easier.

According to the left brain–right brain dominance theory, people have a dominant side of the brain. Shutterstock.

The first time I heard about the left brain–right brain dominance theory, it was the answer to all my 13-year-old self’s problems: my lower grades in art and music. Having always excelled in the sciences, I could not comprehend why I was not as good in the arts. The theory offered me a consoling explanation that my left brain was more dominant, that I was more fit for logical and analytical subjects than the creative ones. I used it as an explanation and justification for my lower performance.

According to the left brain–right brain dominance theory, people have a dominant side of the brain, which is scientifically known as a hemisphere. Those with a dominant left hemisphere are more logical, while those with a dominant right hemisphere are more creative. The former hemisphere is focused on language and analysis, while the latter is focused on expression, perception and emotional intelligence.

The idea came about from Nobel Prize-winning research by neuropsychologist Roger Sperry, who was studying the effects of epilepsy on split brains, in which the normally existent connection between the two brain hemispheres is cut off to prevent the occurrence of seizures. His results showed that when the brain is split, each hemisphere specialises in different tasks, no longer communicating or working together like they used to.

While the results have a more complex explanation due to them being from patients with split brains, the popularity of the theory was due to the media’s simplified take on it (i.e. that a person either has a dominant left or right hemisphere), which is now regarded as a popular psychology myth.

Although I was glad I had the theory as a justification, deep down, part of me knew something was dead wrong with it. I always felt I had a creative side in me that I just did not know how to express or exploit. Yet, the biggest flaw I saw with the theory was the fact that my sister was good at both logical and creative subjects in school.

At some point during my studies, my sister was the first person I turned to when I had trouble with physics. Her approach to explaining formulas and concepts were always accompanied by illustrations, which helped me understand better. The walls in our room were filled with her artwork, which on closer look had very intricate details, showing a very calculated and logical side to her creative art pieces. For example, she used her rational side and love for math to construct and illustrate her art pieces – a method that I think showcases her creativity at its best.

My sister constantly tried to explain to me that only with practice could I unleash my creativity. She constantly encouraged me to join her in brainstorming creative ideas and to give myself a chance to create. It was only when I was around the age of 17 that I realised that creativity was not just painting and sketching. Literature, something I have always enjoyed, was also a form of art. Eventually, I started to appreciate writing as a creative outlet. With time, I found myself not only writing but also incorporating art into my journal entries: simple illustrations and a bit of painting. The more I wrote and shared, the more I realised that I use both hemispheres.

Illustration by Umayma Al Hinai.

Ultimately, research such as that conducted by the University of Utah in 2013 to determine whether one side of the brain works more actively than the other revealed that the brain activity of more than 1,000 people didn’t show a dominance of one hemisphere over the other but rather in both, showing that the left brain–right brain theory is unlikely. And while the left brain–right brain theory was eventually proven a myth, we still find it around us in books and magazines. Our brains are complexly fascinating, and it is about time we embrace its hybridity and ability to use both sides without restrictions. Next time you carry out a task, focus on how your brain naturally works at finding creative yet logical solutions to complete it.

Maria Al Hinai is a storyteller from Oman.