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Art and the Right-Brain Fallacy

When science integrates itself into our culture so fully that people talk about their neural functions over the water cooler, that’s the greatest. Unfortunately, science sometimes gets muddled up with pseudoscience/outdated science/science that has been misrepresented by the media. The left-brain-vs.-right-brain conversation, sadly, is of the latter ilk. You know the conversation I’m talking about: […]

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain) detail, plaster, paint. 1987/1989. Courtesy of  the Walker Art Center.

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain). Plaster, paint. 1987/1989

When science integrates itself into our culture so fully that people talk about their neural functions over the water cooler, that’s the greatest. Unfortunately, science sometimes gets muddled up with pseudoscience/outdated science/science that has been misrepresented by the media. The left-brain-vs.-right-brain conversation, sadly, is of the latter ilk.

You know the conversation I’m talking about: the oft-cited belief that the right hemisphere of our brains controls the more creative, conceptual stuff, while the left brain controls more of the concrete, computational stuff. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is.  The brain works with far more specificity than anything that could be described as “stuff.” For years now, researchers have engaged in an uphill battle to rid the world of this tidbit of right brain/left brain misinformation. And now, there’s some hope that it will soon be laid to rest with the results of a recent comprehensive, many-brained study, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. The findings:  Imaginative and logical brain functions alike call upon many areas of the brain, in both hemispheres. (Details here, if you want to get brainy––note the line describing the “flow state” neurology of rappers and improv jazz musicians.)

It’s a cooperative effort. And isn’t that a beautiful thing?

Egon Schiele, Two Figures

Egon Schiele, Two Figures. Watercolor, charcoal on paper, 1917

So, how did that erroneous story become entrenched as conventional wisdom in the first place? Did our scientists lie to us? Or is the lay audience just so sheeply that we’ll run with any easy explanation we’re fed, without question? How should we feel about this revelation about the way we think, that bridges the presumed gap between logic and emotions?

While big-picture frameworks, like our personalities, aren’t determined by a single hemisphere, it is true that certain brain functions only occur in half of the brain at a time. That fact just doesn’t mean what we want it to mean. If you have a moment, watch this 11-year-old video about the differing roles of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. In it, you’ll see Dr. Mike Gazzaniga administer a series of tests to a patient who has had the two hemispheres of his brain surgically separated. Tests like this made Dr. Gazzaniga famous, and were groundbreaking in our understanding of brain function. They also sewed the seeds for right/left-brain mythology.

If you’re watching, be wary as you marvel. Dr. Gazzaniga’s groundbreaking experiments clearly illustrate the difference in hemispherical function in Joe-the-test-subject’s brain, but they don’t speak to everything each hemisphere is doing. Gazzaniga, though a leader in his field, paints his conclusions for the viewer with broad strokes — saying that the left brain is where “the action” is, advising not to “leave home with out it.” You can’t blame him, really: Gazzaniga seems to admire the work Joe’s left brain is doing in his lab, and he rounds up his assessment of that hemisphere accordingly, giving it credit for general systematization of incoming stimuli and for the task of making sense of information. And Gazzaniga is also a human, fired up about his test’s recent success. The way he paraphrases the left brain’s overall activity is much like Joe’s explanation for why he chose, say, a bell to represent music, in response to one of the test’s questions.

That’s just the left brain doing its job, making connections. And, as we now know, even the left brain is subject to emotional influence.

Arakawa, Detail Of..., oil on canvas, 1969. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Arakawa, Detail Of…, oil on canvas, 1969

P.S. Gazzanigo’s test actually proves that Giuseppe Arcimboldo needed both hemispheres of his brain in order to paint like he did. I’m reminded of the bag lady, Trudy’s “soup/art” bit about Warhol from Lily Tomlin’s Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Did I tell you what happened at the play? We were at the back of the theater, standing there in the dark, all of a sudden I feel one of ‘em tug my sleeve, whispers, “Trudy, look.” I said, “Yeah, goose bumps. You definitely got goose bumps. You really like the play that much?” They said it wasn’t gave ‘em goose bumps, it was the audience. I forgot to tell ‘em to watch the play; they’d been watching the audience! Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things…that just knocked ‘em out. They said, “Trudy, the play was soup…the audience…art.”

Maggie Ryan Sandford is a science journalist, fiction writer, performer, and media producer who has devoted her life to promoting widespread scientific literacy. Her work has been published in Slate, Smithsonian, mental_floss, the Onion A.V. ClubPaper Darts, Revolver, Thirty Two, the Indiana Review online, McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals, and she has appeared at the Walker Art Center, the Seattle Art Museum, the Minnesota Institute of Arts, the Guthrie Theater, the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre NYC, and on National Public Radio and Twin Cities Public Television. She was named champion of both Literary Death Match 100 and Revolvermagazine’s recent “Write Fight,” and is part of the bimonthly storytelling group Rock Star Storytellers. More at MaggieRyanSandford.com and @Mandford on Twitter.