This post is part of a learning sciences blog series debunking common myths in K–12 education. Read the introductory blog post in the series here.
I recently completed an online art class with my daughter where we created our own mermaid portraits, and the teacher called to us to “engage the right sides of our brains!” I smiled and said out loud, “Let’s use all of our beautiful brains!” For many decades, there has been an understanding that the left side of the brain supports our logical side and the right side brings out our creative side. Unfortunately, this misbelief stems from split-brain experiments in the mid-late 20th century that were simplified upon being shared with the public. The areas of the brain work together in complex ways, and we are not, generally, left- or right-brain dominated.
Perhaps the public was intrigued by the dichotomous pull between logic and emotion—it has been explored in science fiction TV for decades. The logic (Spock, Data) and the empath (McCoy, Troi) would voice two different sides of a challenge, both helping the hero (Kirk, Picard) make the choices that save the day. Our students of today need to be the heroes of tomorrow, becoming innovators with creative problem-solving techniques that use data to inform decision-making.
When students believe the left-right brain myth—that they are only data-driven but not at all creative, or vice versa—they limit opportunities for growth in the classroom, with the false dichotomy possibly preventing them from seeing themselves as strong learners in both STEM and the humanities. Sure, a certain student may find him or herself more easily able to analyze a data set than draw a picture of their favorite book character, or vice versa, but teachers need to emphasize to students that they are actually whole-brain thinkers with an ability to learn new concepts and ideas.
Let’s dive into what the research says on the left-brain right-brain myth and how should we design lessons that promote a growth mindset in both logic and creativity.
Myth of Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain: What the Research Says
First off, there’s no evidence that suggests that relying on logic or being creative has anything to do with the sides of the brain (see this study for an analysis of more than 1,000 brains!). The best resource I found is from Dr. Elizabeth Waters. (Check out this neat, animated version of her TED talk.) She explains that there are in fact two sides of the brain—not only the two cortexes (connected by the corpus callosum) but also throughout the whole brain and stem. However, in terms of functionality, movement and sight are the two systems that rely on the left/right structure.
"The areas of the brain work together in complex ways, and we are not, generally, left- or right-brain dominated."
For learning, all different parts of our brain are activated in a complex web of networks. To quote my favorite reading professor, Maryanne Wolf, in her latest book Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, for the longest time we “had no glimpse of the imagined, the extraordinary cerebral complexity that reading involves, and how the act of reading embodies as no other function the brain’s semi-miraculous ability to go beyond its original, genetically programmed capacities such as vision and language.”
Another myth is that the brain is like a file cabinet or library, sorting and storing information in organized stacks. In her book, Neuromyths: Debunking False Ideas About the Brain, Dr. Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa explains that it’s not that math is in “x part of the brain and ‘art’ in another, but information is distributed throughout the brain in complex networks.” According to Dr. Tokuhama-Espinosa, research shows there are particular network hubs that require neural signaling to pass through, such as the language areas of Broca and Wernicke (both on the left side for most). The brain is more like a coworking space, where the bathrooms and kitchen are hubs that folks pass through and the large conference room is where brainstorming happens, but the rest of the office adjusts to the needs of the people, process, and products.
As Armin Iraji, a research scientist in the Center for Translational Research in Neuroimaging & Data Science (TReNDS), said, “You can think of the brain like an organization where employees work together to make the whole system run. For a long time, we thought brain networks were like departments or offices, where the same people were doing the same job every day. But it turns out that they may be more like coworking spaces, where people move in and out and there are different jobs being performed at any given time.”
Why Teachers Should Listen to the Brain Research
The brain’s ability to adapt has been one of the most incredible concepts I’ve learned about the learning sciences. With opportunity, stimulus, attention, and repetition, we really can learn almost anything. Adaptability is also one of the most frequently sought-after competencies I’ve looked for in job candidates over the past 20 years.
When students have a sense of belonging, and if they believe that they can have strengths and grow in a particular area, then it’s more likely they will take the agency to grab opportunities that the structure and culture of school provides for them. This brain myth is the kind of falsehood that could change the way students think and behave, limiting their adaptability and growth mindset to strengthen their logic and creativity skills.
What to Think About When Designing Lessons for Students
RAMP, the HMH Learning Science Pillars (Rigorous, Aligned, Motivating, and Personal), can help you, as an educator, develop ways to foster both logic and creativity to enable deep learning for our students.
RIGOROUS: Presenting students with real-world problems to solve can help them exercise their critical thinking and creativity skills. Aim for questions that can have more than one answer and require multiple opportunities to interact with information streams, peers, or even adults within or outside of the community.
ALIGNED: Individual variability includes numerous research-based factors (such as visual processing and stereotype threat; see our Learning Styles Myth post to learn more) that impact learning, which teachers can use instead of the left-right dichotomy. Whatever students bring to the learning table, provide them with actionable and specific feedback
MOTIVATING: Having a fixed mindset related to only being “left-brained” can reduce students’ motivation and limit their opportunities for growth. Build in goal setting and reflection activities to help students understand their skill development and competencies, which support students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.
PERSONAL: Community values that emphasize the importance of both logic and creativity can help create a sense of belonging for all students. When highlighting role models from history, explore multiple facets of their identify so students can see how the blending of strengths from different skills can lead to innovation and leadership.
Book: Biology Everywhere
In her book, Dr. Melanie Peffer explores how biology is everywhere in your daily life. Her book is intended to bridge the gap between traditional biology classes and the practical knowledge needed in the real world. It includes content traditionally found in biology classes and several chapters on the intersection of biology with other disciplines.
One particular connection she makes is the interaction between art and biology. Students can see how artist-scientists helped provide early documents of life around the world and under the earth (e.g., systems of roots beneath the trees) and learn that these hand-drawn pieces are foundational for research today. Visual or audio representations about what we see and observe in the world are just as important, if not more, than traditional narrative written journaling.
Left-Brain Right-Brain, Debunked
The myth of left-brain vs. right-brain seems to come up when we talk about our strengths or weaknesses, and the false dichotomy is often reinforced by characters on television or in the media. In fact, the brain is more like a dynamic and fluid network, with a lot of opportunity for students to grow and learn to be both logical and creative. Our future depends on our students’ future ability to problem solve, so as you plan your STEM lessons, consider adding an A and making it STEAM instead (science, technology, engineering, art, and math).
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Jessica McKeown, PhD
HMH Senior Learning Scientist, Math and Science
Dr. Sue Chapman
Professional Learning Consultant, Heinemann