Recently my awesome Inc.com colleague Anna Hensel posted an article entitled "14 Books Every Left-Brain Person Should Read This Summer". It's full of great book recommendations. You should definitely check them out. But I do have one small quibble with Anna's headline: according to a boatload of science, the idea that some people are "left-brained" and others "right-brained" is actually total bunk.

We all love a good classification scheme (if you need convincing just look at the popularity of astrology, Myers-Briggs, and women's magazine personality quizzes). And it's also true that some people are more analytical and organized, while others are more creative and spontaneous, but it doesn't follow that these different personality types can be tied back to a preference for using one half of the brain or another.

What brain scans actually show

If you're skeptical a recent University of Utah study offers pretty definitive evidence that dividing people by brain hemisphere is about as scientific as dividing them by the arrangement of heavenly bodies at the time of their birth. The research team scanned the brains of more than 1,000 people looking for signs that some people favored one side of the brain over the other.

They found nada.

Yes, different parts of the brain are particularly active for different activities -- your left hemisphere lights up when you're engaged in tasks that involve language, for example ---but these differences are true for everyone.

"It is certainly the case that some people have more methodical, logical cognitive styles, and others more uninhibited, spontaneous style. This has nothing to do on any level with the different functions of the [brain's] left and right hemisphere," Jeffrey Anderson, a brain researcher involved in the study, definitively concluded.

It might sound like innocent fun to identify yourself as left or right-brained, but the problem isn't just inaccuracy, The Guardian's Amy Novotney points out. The left-brained vs. right-brained myth can become a "self-fulfilling prophecy," she warns.

"When your 12-year-old fills out an online personality test that pegs her as a 'right-brainer' and she decides to skip her math homework - because the test told her she isn't good with numbers - the persistence of this false dichotomy starts to become destructive. The same goes for the unemployed worker who forgoes applying for their dream job because the job description calls for creativity skills they think they may not have," she writes.

The origins of the left-brained v. right-brained myth

So where did this idea that some people are more reliant on the right half of their brain and others on the left come from? The idea probably traces back to Nobel Prize-winning research done by Roger Sperry in the 1960s. The work looked at epilepsy patients who had their left and right brains physically severed for therapeutic reasons.

It proved, as you've no doubt learned along the way in biology class, that different parts of the brain have different functions. But it never suggested that the right half was "emotional" and the left "logical." That's an invention of pop psychologists and internet quiz authors.

What's the bottom line on the science, according to Anderson? "The pop culture idea (creative vs. logical traits) has no support in the neuroscience community and flies in the face of decades of research about brain organization, the functional roles of the two brain hemispheres and evidence from patients with lesions in one or the other hemisphere in the brain."

Which doesn't mean Anna's article isn't full of good reads for creative types. It just means that creative types really shouldn't be called "right-brained."

Published on: Jul 19, 2017