Transcript

Right-brain teaching is half-witted

Annukka Lindell
a.lindell@latrobe.edu.au

Audio

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Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and today my guest is Dr Annukka Lindell, from the School of Psychological Sciences at La Trobe University. Thank you for joining me Annukka.

Annukka Lindell:

Thank you.

Matt Smith:

Now it's a common belief that if you are creative, your right side of the brain is well active and dominant over the left, and if the opposite is true, then that gives you more of an academic bent and there's much teaching directed at this, but you're here to debunk this sort of thinking. So my first question to you, Dr Lindell, is right brain or left brain half-witted?

Annukka Lindell:

Well, the idea that your right hemisphere is creative and your left hemisphere is more logical intelligent is something that we call a neuromyth, so this is something that is a really popular belief but actually patently false, and this idea was debunked in the psychological literature over thirty years ago, but it's something that is just so appealing, and it's sort of captured people's imagination that it still gets bandied about quite a lot. And this means then that when marketers are coming up with a product, they can throw in a word like right brain or left brain and it makes it inherently appealing to the people that they're marketing to.

Matt Smith:

Where did this myth first come from then? At some point it must have been scientific research that came up with this.

Annukka Lindell:

It came from scientific research on people who had very damaged brains, so most of the research came from people who were suffering from epilepsy which just wasn't responding to pharmaceuticals and as a result of that, they had to have an operation where the two sides of their brain were actually separated surgically. So this means that you are chopping through 250 million nerve fibres that connect the two sides of the brain in order to stop epileptic activity travelling from one hemisphere to the other. That then means that each side of the brain is functionally isolated and in those people, yes, there are some really markedly different processes from what you see in humans who have intact brains, but obviously if you're inferring function from a normal brain from a severed brain, there are some problems there.

Matt Smith:

So that's when the theory came about. The look of horror on my face won't travel well across podcasts but that was just an errrfff. Is that why when you get people who suffer damage to one side of the brain, they can sometimes re-learn skills?

Annukka Lindell:

You certainly can. Increasingly we're becoming conscious of the fact that the brain is actually really plastic and we are able to recover to a certain extent following damage, but that recovery in most cases is limited.

Matt Smith:

Is it not true though that with some characteristics you can measure lateral dominance.

Annukka Lindell:

You're right and you're exactly right with the word lateral dominance because what the idea is is that your entire brain is involved in just about everything you do, but each hemisphere is specialised and so is a little bit more efficient for different types of tasks. Now, just because one hemisphere is a little bit more efficient doesn't mean that the other hemisphere has no input at all, so you're bang-on with lateral dominance. One hemisphere might be more dominant for a process but that doesn't mean that the other hemisphere has no input at all.

Matt Smith:

But is it still done with the split as in the right side is dominant for creative …

Annukka Lindell:

No, actually increasingly what we're seeing is that if you have a look at the brains of people who are highly creative, and if we do that in something like a functional imaging machine where we can have a look at where their brains are active when they're performing creative tasks, what we see is actually both sides of their brain are very heavily active, and in fact it's the connectivity between the two sides of the brain that allows them to process information in a more creative fashion than anyone else.

Matt Smith:

OK, so we've got this misconception then. What sort of activity is based around this misconception? I know that you said that there's a lot of education going on aimed at right brain/left brain thinking. What sort of things did you find?

Annukka Lindell:

Well, educationalists quite rightly know that the brain is really, really important for kids' development, so it makes sense that from an educational perspective, if you're looking at possible tools, or you're evaluating those tools, you would try and pick the one that's going to do the best thing for the child's brain. Now, there are a whole heap of programs that are designed to, according to the marketers, activate the right hemisphere, so there's this neuromyth that the left hemisphere is basically the focus of traditional education and that you are ignoring the right hemisphere. Now, because the two sides of the brain are so heavily interconnected, that's completely false, and yet people believe that that's the case. Consequently there are different training programs, there are different computer programs, there are all sorts of books about teaching your right-brain-child. Nintendo D S has a program called Left Brain Right Brain where you're meant to train the two sides of your brain. The thing is that the two sides of your brain are active in everything that you do, and you can't selectively train one or the other.

Matt Smith:

How do you recommend people approach this kind of neuro-marketing?

Annukka Lindell:

I think that they should look at it sceptically, and I think that one thing that people can do is just ask the question – where is the evidence that this product selectively activates one or the other side of the brain, because if they have empirical evidence to back it up, then certainly you should take it on its merits and evaluate it appropriately. The thing is that at the moment there is no scientific evidence to show that any of these programs selectively activate one or the other side of the brain.

Matt Smith:

OK. So there might be no evidence, but is it necessarily a harmful misconception?

Annukka Lindell:

Well, it's harmful in the sense that when educationalists are evaluating different tools and they are exposed to literally hundreds on a yearly basis where people are saying, look, this is the new best product for your children. You should be exposing the kids to this because it's going to do the best things for their brains. They might then believe that because something's called right brain training, that that might be a better product than something else. The fact is that if it's called right brain training but there's no evidence to show that it selectively improves right brain function, they're being misled and that's where it becomes problematic.

Matt Smith:

You used a great word before which was a neuromyth. How much neuromyths are there in psychology and how much is there that we don't know about the brain?

Annukka Lindell:

Well, I think arguably we know far less than we know, and I think that will be the case for quite some time. There's a lovely quote by E. M. Pugh who basically argued that if the human brain was simple enough for us to understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't, and so it's fantastic that we're doing this research and we're making leaps and bounds but there's still so much that is unknown and that's likely to be the case for quite some time.

Matt Smith:

That's a good quote. I like that one.

Annukka Lindell:

It's brilliant.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr Annukka Lindell, thank you for your time today.

Annukka Lindell:

Thank you very much.