Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Are Artists Right-Brained?

There's a lot of information online about the difference between the two hemispheres of the brain and what that means for artists.

Many commentators suggest that each of us is either a "left hemisphere person" or a "right hemisphere person," as if we think and act primarily with one dominant hemisphere. This idea originated from studies in the 1960s and '70s with patients whose two hemispheres had to be separated by cutting through the connecting nerve bundle called the corpus callosum.

The notion that has percolated through popular culture is that each half of the brain functions separately.

Recent studies reveal that the truth is actually more nuanced than that.

Iain McGilchrist, a psychologist who has investigated this topic, suggests that different hemispheres of the brain are actually engaged in similar cognitive tasks, but each half approaches that task in a different way.

The right half focuses more on the big picture, and the left hemisphere focuses more on the details. The right brain appreciates metaphor, poetry, humor, and music, while the left brain is more focused on the notes, the denotive facts, and the logical conclusions. 

Although they have somewhat different styles of information processing, the two hemispheres are both engaged as you navigate through most tasks, and they work together when you're creating a painting. 

In this YouTube video, which is illustrated by a whiteboard animation, Iain McGilchrist explains the lateralized brain, and how that affects our personal and cultural styles of thought. 


The art teacher most strongly associated with this line of scientific reasoning is Betty Edwards, who wrote Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and has updated it with a 4th Edition


arenhaus said...

The whole "left brain - right brain" stuff is a pernicious myth. The single experiment it was based on was not done on intact brain, to begin with; it was conducted on patients with destroyed links between the hemispheres. Even then, consider: it was found that the right hemisphere is less verbal than the left one, but the specialized speech processors are in the left hemisphere to begin with, so nothing of import was discovered.

There had been subsequent experiments that used improved ways to present images to only one of the hemispheres of healthy people. It was found that in that case, the right hemisphere tends to focus more on the big picture while the left one tends to focus more on the details, but they work together. Or the left one tends to process sequences and the right one tends to process relationships. But the whole thing is so flexible and adaptable that you can design an experiment differently and get the exact opposite: the left hemisphere will focus more on the big picture and the right one on the details!

Nothing there shows that "left is logic, right is creativity" - that's old tired bullshit that became ingrained in the public memes and refuses to die.

James Gurney said...

Eugene, if you read Mr. McGilchrist closely, you can see he stays well clear of the over-simplistic characterizations you rightly criticize. He also is keen to point out that both hemispheres work together on most tasks.

However, I don't think it's correct to say it's entirely a myth or that it's all 'bullshit.' There have been neuroimaging studies that back up the qualified claims that McGilchrist is making. For example: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2763431/

InfinitelyBlank said...

The Master and his Emissary is truly a remarkable and enlightening book. It certainly helped a huge amount in understanding my own cognition (and in retrospect helped explain why things like the mirror trick can give you such a radical and vitally important view on a piece you've been working on for a while.)

I'm glad you liked it too James! There's nothing better than genius discussing genius ;)