Well there certainly was some interesting and provocative stuff about the brain in the news in 2013. Last summer, the whole right hemisphere/left hemisphere dominance thing (controversial in neuroscience for quite a while now) was fairly well refuted by researchers at the University of Utah. In November, a new book came out also dismissing the importance of understanding the two hemispheres in favor of looking at top and bottom brain processing differences (note: it’s a bit simplistic and was not universally well-reviewed). And just before the end of the year, there was new stuff about the difference between male and female brains, once again looking at the hemispheres (and adding fuel to the gender wars).
Frankly, it’s all had my head in a bit of a spin, because at BEabove we’ve been digging into the right and left hemisphere in our advanced coaching series, encouraging coaches to use this as one way to understand where their client may be coming from. I’ve also written blog posts here about the different aspects of each hemisphere, spoken about it at conferences, and all in all, held this part of neuroscience as a key thing to understand in both coaching and leadership.
So you can imagine my reaction! Part of me wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and say “la la la I can’t hear you.” But my better angels prevailed, and instead I sat down and tried my best to make sense of it all. Here’s what I’ve come to, and let me say it is an emerging and probably imperfect understanding (just like our overall understanding of the brain itself at this point in humanity’s development):
1) IT’S TRUE — We really should probably stop calling people “right brained” or “left brained.” According to brain imaging studies, it’s not accurate. At most, it’s a metaphor that is not literally true. As the University of Utah study found, we’re simply not more likely to use one side or the other based on our overall personality. No matter who we are, we use both to do most things. Creative people (who we tend to think of as “right-brained”) use their left side as much as logical people, and logical people (who we tend to think of as “left-brained”) use their right as much as creative people.
2) HOWEVER — There is still much to be learned about who we are by examining and understanding the differences of each hemisphere. Our brains are specialized for a reason — it is what enables us to have the giant brains we have and still walk upright. Our heads just couldn’t get any bigger and still pass through the birth canal, so each hemisphere took on different tasks, and a different way of looking at the world (for more on this, see Come On Over to the Right Side). Which brings us to…..
3) PERHAPS — According to the lead author of the Utah study, “people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-side brain network. It seems to be determined more connection to connection.” This means we could be seeing more right or left hemisphere activation around particular issue although not in the entire brain or personality as a whole (see point #1). Thus, understanding the different way each hemisphere sees the world can be very helpful with our journey of self-awareness, as well as understanding our clients and helping them move forward when they are stuck.
4) BECAUSE — Ultimately, it’s not about right or left (or top and bottom, either). It’s about how integrated we can be. For example, research on so-called “resonant” leaders (who tended to put their followers in an open, creative brain state) versus “dissonant” leaders (who tended to create an avoidance state in their followers) found that resonant leaders had more neural firing in both hemispheres of the brain. And long-term meditators develop stronger areas for both positivity (left hemisphere) and compassion (right hemisphere), as well as a measurably thicker corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres. This bridge helps both connect the two hemispheres as well as allowing each to effectively inhibit the other as needed (see Inhibition and the Brain for more on inhibition and its link to effectiveness). We don’t need or want to be “dominant” in one or the other hemisphere in order to be more effective. We need to become more integrated between our hemispheres, stronger not in one, but in both.
And so, let’s by all means be accurate and up to date, but not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ok, it’s not accurate to call someone “right brained” or “left brained.” We can give that up or use it as a metaphor. Fair enough. But understanding the differences between the two hemispheres does, in our opinion, remain interesting and helpful in the process of working to create more integration and ultimately, higher levels of effectiveness. So there. And la la la I can’t hear you if you insist on telling me differently!
Sigh. Not really.