Idealog‘s weekly newsletter points us to an intriguing animation under the title The Right Brain vs Left Brain. Apparently if you look at the spinning dancer, it will show you whether you use the right brain more than the left. If you see the dancer spinning clockwise, you are right brain dominant. It also lists the usual functions attributed to each hemisphere:
LEFT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
words and language
present and past
math and science
knows object name
RIGHT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
“big picture” oriented
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can “get it” (i.e. meaning)
knows object function
Have a look at the animation and take the test before you read any further.
How did you get on? Are you a righty or a lefty? How do you feel about that?
Personally, I came out as a lefty, i.e. the dancer was spinning anti-clockwise. According to The Australian Daily Telegraph, this means I’m keen on words and language, logic, details, maths and science. ‘Facts rule’ in my universe, because I’m ‘reality based’. Conversely, I’m less likely to appreciate fantasy, imagination, symbols and images and philosophy and religion.
I had to smile at the thought of some of my friends’ reactions to that description. I think they would probably recognise the words, logic and detail – but also a large dose of fantasy and imagination. ‘Reality based’ would probably draw the strongest protests from some, who feel I don’t have sufficient respect for ‘common sense’ (whatever that is). And a friend with a Ph.D in maths would point out my complete inability to grasp some basic mathematical concepts.
So I tried an experiment. I relaxed, unfocused my eyes and gazed ‘through’ the dancer, while opening my mind to the possibility that the dancer was actually spinning the other way… and lo and behold, she was!
If you read my last post about Wishful Thinking and Creativity, you might appreciate why I’m sceptical about such black-and-white distinctions about something as complex as the human brain. The absurdity is obvious in the title: ‘The Right Brain vs the Left Brain’. Surely the two hemispheres have evolved to work with, not against each other? Apart from such gross oversimplification of the findings of neuroscience, as a poet I’ve always had a problem with the idea that ‘words and language’ are somehow confined to the world of facts and logic rather than fantasy and imagination.
So what? Well the fact that it’s possible to switch from (allegedly) left-brain mode to right-brain mode so easily suggests that the distinctions aren’t as hard and fast as the article implies. We have the option of changing our perspective and our mode of thinking, feeling and acting.
But the main reason the article caught my eye is the way it perpetuates a stereotype of creativity as right brain ‘imagination’, in opposition to the moribund ‘facts’ and ‘logic’ of the left brain. This is the kind of thinking that sees creativity purely in terms of ‘thinking out of the box’ and coming up with whacky ideas – when in fact this is only half the story. Look at the work of any outstandingly creative person and you will find plenty of evidence of order, discipline, reason and other supposedly left brain qualities.
The real optical illusion takes place if we see the two lists above as isolated compartments, rather than twin poles in dynamic balance and exchange. Creativity happens at the point where logic and emotion, reason and imagination combine and work together, resolving their apparent contradictions. For this, you need your whole brain – and body.
Have another look at the dancer. Relax. Gaze through her. Allow her to dance whichever way she wants. Can you follow her?