Right brain, left brain—let’s just call the whole thing off


By the time I finished high school, I was pretty certain that I would not be majoring in engineering when I went to college. I say that because my dad is an engineer, and that’s what my brothers and my son all majored in. Mechanical, electrical, chemical and civil—my family seems to have it covered. I am the lone basket-weaver, as my brother Craig used to say.

While my brothers excelled in math and the hard sciences, I struggled with algebra 2/trig and physics (although I liked chemistry). So I decided to pursue a liberal arts education. When I was at UVA, I gave math one last try when I signed up for accounting and economics. I thought I might transfer into the Commerce School and become business major. I had visions of being courted by the big accounting firms.

Alas, it was not meant to be. I majored in English, and so no recruiter ever called, much less took me to dinner or flew me, expense-paid, to some glittering corporate headquarters. Like most of my friends, I dutifully sent out resumes and worried that four years of college had been wasted in pursuit of something totally impractical (like basket weaving). What separated me from some of my fellow English majors is that I had written for the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student newspaper. I left school with a folder full of clips that I could show prospective employers.

engineering humorAnd so began my career as a writer, editor and public relations professional. I do not regret it. I have learned over the years that right-brain thinking has its advantages. After all, right-brain thinkers are the ones who rule world, right? Only two U.S. presidents have been engineers—Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Need I say more? Hoover presided over the Great Depression and Carter over high interest rates and the Iranian hostage crisis. Interestingly, both had more successful careers as elder statesmen after they left the White House.

Dividing our thinking into right- and left-brain categories has some advantages. It helps us to understand different ways of viewing the world, processing information, solving problems and communicating.

You might remember the book, “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain,” by Betty Edwards. It was a landmark book when it was published in 1979. I remember using it in a drawing class I took in the 1980s at Northern Virginia Community College.

Edwards’ thesis was that our brains have two ways of perceiving and processing reality—verbal and analytical versus visual and perceptual. Edwards created a methodology and exercises for suppressing the left side of the brain and heightening the right side.

So in class, we were taught to disregard preconceived notions of what drawn objects should look like. I remember copying images upside down, drawing with our eyes closed, doing quick sketches without regard to whether the subject looked true to life and all manner of exercises designed to break us of the habit of drawing analytically. And you know, it actually worked!

Edwards was influenced by neuroscience research that seemed to indicate that the two hemispheres of the brain have different functions. She described “L-mode” thinking as verbal, analytical and sequential and “R-mode” as visual, perceptual and global.

Drawing on the right side of the brain

Edwards’ book changed the way drawing is taught and got a lot of people thinking about right brain vs. left brain.

In the intervening years, this right-brain/left-brain approach to thinking spawned a new movement in management that emphasizes soft skills, emotional intelligence and creativity.

In his 2006 book, “A Whole New Mind,” Daniel Pink argues that right-brainers are now on the ascendancy. We once needed an army of programmers, engineers and lawyers, he says, but today we need more artists, inventors and designers. Pink says that moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age will require new skills, among them: design, storytelling, invention, empathy, big-picture thinking, play and the pursuit of meaning.

The aptitudes that Pink identifies as being important in this new Conceptual Age are the very ones we’re now seeing Millennials value in their work and favor in the marketplace. But in our haste to embrace these new, softer skills, we shouldn’t lose sight of the left-brain virtues of logic and reasoning, nor the fact that a full complement of skills is needed manage an organization.

More recent research on how the brain functions no longer supports the notion that one hemisphere of the brain is more logical or creative. In fact, both sides of the brain contribute to both types of processes. The two sides of the brain collaborate to perform a variety of tasks, communicating through the corpus callosum that joins the two hemispheres together.

In a piece for Discover magazine, science writer Carl Zimmer summarized this more nuanced, integrated approach to brain activity, explaining, “The pop psychology notion of a left brain and a right brain doesn’t capture their intimate working relationship. The left hemisphere specializes in picking out the sounds that form words and working out the syntax of the phrase, for example, but it does not have a monopoly on language processing. The right hemisphere is more sensitive to the emotional features of language, tuning-in to the slow rhythms of speech that carry intonation and stress.”

Rather than conjecturing that one way of thinking is more dominant, depending on whether we’re right-brained or left-brained, it’s more helpful to think of both sides of our brain working together in a collaborative fashion. It’s like an orchestra playing a symphony that requires both a high degree of lyrical sensibility and perfect execution. All of the parts of the symphony and all of the instruments in the orchestra combine to create a memorable performance.

While I often think of myself as a “creative,” I’ve always had a very practical and logical side. I’m pretty good with budgeting and finances. I have a scientific mind in that I’m naturally curious and skeptical. I like hard proof before I make a decision. I like technology. I like to tinker, and I love the challenge of finding out how something works, whether it’s a machine or a computer program.

So maybe it’s time to stop categorizing people as right-brained or left-brained. Perhaps we should be more concerned with developing the talent that we have and recognizing the unique strengths and contributions that each of us brings to the table. At the same time, we must understand that the best organizations are those that cross-train and encourage their team members to innovate, take risks and grow into new roles. Let us strive to bridge right-brain and left-brain thinking, honing both hard and soft skills to effectively plan, analyze, motivate, inspire and lead.

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