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.