Scrub your brain of these "folk neuroscience" misconceptions

There is no such thing as "left brained" or "right brained". You really and truly cannot break down rationality and creativity in that way. And that's not the only thing we all think we know about the brain that turns out to be totally wrong. At the Guardian Vaughan Bell writes about the rise of folk neuroscience, why these misconceptions are actually problematic, and which bits of false information we need to stop repeating to one another.


  1. Please add to the list all that cr*p that goes with learning styles, KAV or Kinesthetic, Audio and Visual learners. We had to do this during UK Teacher training but I sawe a report about how it was all wrong and everyone uses all three anyway.

    1. Yes, please! They still churn out this baloney in education programs in the United States, and purchasing and curricular decisions are based on it.

  2. There are left-brain and right-brain dominant individuals. People with larger left brains tend to be happier. True, the associations between creativity and reasoning aren’t clear cut, but we do have two brains that act very, very different and you do see variation between people that are left or right brain dominant.

    1. But what you are calling “left-brain dominant” and “right-brain dominant” is just your description given people’s outside attributes. There’s no evidence that it actually has anything to do with hemispheres of the brain.

      I could call people who are emotional “heart-dominant” and people who are very reserved “spine dominant,” and then show that there are very real differences between people who are “heart” or “spine” dominant. I wouldn’t have shown anything about the actual heart or spine itself, though.

      “People with larger left brains tend to be happier.” [citation needed]

  3. I go round and round with this “right/left brain” stuff.  Yes, it’s overly simple and literally inaccurate, but it is a useful metaphor that captures two ends of a continuum of mental processes we all experience (that can be used to sort human activities and even professions).  I haven’t seen another metaphor that works as well for capturing these polar differences. You got one I can try out?

    1. The problem is that it is a metaphor that abuses our psychological trust and perpetrates belief in physically untrue facts. Why not just skip the metaphor and refer to “creative”/”rational” types directly, if the split is all that valuable to you? (Assuming that’s what you are using the split to represent. Actually, is a metaphor it’s pretty much useless, since I don’t understand what you’re actually illustrating with it)

  4.  Using it as a metaphor is totally wrong, because you DO have two brains with specific functions, the right and the left. They are independent entities, connected by the corpus callosum. So treating it like a metaphor ignores what we actually know about what the left and right brain do. “You can no more do right-brain thinking than you can do rear-brain thinking.” This seems unlikely. If you close your right eye, are you not shutting off a great deal of neural input into your left-brain? Experiments have done to dampen each hemisphere independently. If the amount amount your thinking is associated with brain activity, I’m sure there are thousands of instances where the left brain is thinking more than the right, or vice versa. There’s a lot of good information out there about what your two brains do.

    1. If you close your right eye, are you not shutting off a great deal of neural input into your left-brain?

      No, suppressing input does not suppress activity.  In fact, it often increases activity.  Look up Charles Bonnet Syndrome if you have any doubts on that score. Phantom limb syndrome is another pretty good example.

      You can also look up “hemispherectomy”.  As long as it’s performed early enough in a person’s life it doesn’t seem to have any long-term impact on a person’s cognitive capacities.

      Language capabilities are usually seated in the left-brain but verbal abilities are usually associated with “right-brained” people. Just as an example of how the left brain/right brain metaphor is actually not consistent with neuroscientific evidence about the functional specializations of the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

    2. Last time I checked I only had one brain. And no, if you close one eye you are actually reducing a great deal of neural input to visual areas in both hemispheres.

      1. Why a metaphor? Why not associative an analytical? Or if you really want a metaphor, they’re out there. How about Hölderlin’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian?

          1. Thinking those two are in opposition screwed me up for most of my life.  It turns out not to be true at all.

      2. There aren’t two broadly different styles of thinking.  Human minds differ on a huge number of variables, not just one.  If you really need a metaphor: stop comparing apples to oranges.  We also have beets, algae, oak trees, lichen, and Pando — and that list isn’t exhaustive.

        1. Yes, this.  I would suggest that there are also very concrete practical artists and very creative romantic scientists, mathematicians and engineers.  A lot of science fiction authors and inventors are also both concrete and romantic.  Politicians need to read and alter people’s feelings through, but must cause concrete change in reality, hence it’s name “the art of the possible”.  There are very focused artists who strike one note, but do it well, or very technically skilled artists with excellent performance skills who do not have much in the way of creative expression.  There are some people with a poor grasp of math and concrete issues, and who do nothing creative.  Human brains have a huge range of ability and talent, and suggesting that these traits or individuals must be in one of two camps seems an unnecessary simplification.  

          1. I’m a capable artist, and my fellow students would talk about me being creative, but my artistic process is extremely analytical.  Much more Data than Picasso.

      3.  I’d be curious to know what you’re doing this this metaphor that it appears to really bother you that it would be called into question. Is “Men are from Mars Women are from Venus” also a guiding principle in your life that you find invaluable? I find it strange that you would find any gap where you don’t have a reductive shorthand untenable. I was raised in a very new-agey home, and because I liked to draw I was pinned as a “left brain” person and was thus underexposed to math, science and technology.

        Reductive shorthands seem to have a way of bleeding into “good” and “bad” as well. In my house “left brain” was preferable. If a rubric for determining intellectual strengths and styles is that critical to you on a daily basis, I would say invite as much nuance as you can. If you’re just arm-chairing, then, I think this article would suggest….don’t 

    3. You have perfectly replicated the misconception. You also have a reptilian complex in your hindbrain and a forebrain accountable for advanced cognition. For decades people perpetrated the myth that hind, mid, and forebrain replicated id, ego, and superego. It’s just as intriguing and just as misleading.

    4. Vision isn’t that simple either.

      Stroke victims, when the stroke is in the proper parts of the brain, can have the left or right half of their visual fields lost *in both eyes*.

      I know someone whose stroke produced a 3cm damaged volume in the left-rear area of their brain. It resulted in some speech problems, the complete loss of sensation on their right side and the loss of visual perception of the right half of their visual field.

  5. I’m more of a stem-of-the-brain kind of guy…

    P.S. Didn’t read the article, does it tie in with eliminative materialism? Seems like the ultimate Hume statement, without knowing much about either in depth… Also seems the outcome is, e.g. “quit complaining about that gaping wound, after all the pain is only within your head.” Yeah, well, maybe that’s where it lives. Doesn’t make it less real.

    1. No, this is about one reductive model casting doubts on earlier and less rigorous reductive models.

  6. Damn. Now I’m wondering what else I learned from my hippy art teacher in the 1980s bears reexamination.

  7. I believe the neuroscience folks have coined the term “neurobullocks” for pop-psych bestsellers that perpetuate these and other myths. ::cough:: ::cough:: Malcolm Gladwell  ::cough:: ::cough:: 

  8. Everyday/pop-culture theories are plagued by inaccuracies and oversimplifications and subject to metaphor shifts.  They are heuristics that can lead us astray but often have some sort of practical usefulness.

    Current “neuroscience” theories, research, and language is more rigorous and somewhat self-correcting but “neuroscience” is also plaged by inaccuracies, huge gaps and subject to paradigm shifts.

    It’s not as if either realm is immune from criticism, doubt, and humor.

    1. Current “neuroscience” theories, research, and language is more rigorous and somewhat self-correcting but “neuroscience” is also plaged by inaccuracies, huge gaps and subject to paradigm shifts.

      Don’t suppose you want to give any particular examples?

      Also, what’s with the scare quotes? Neuroscience really is called neuroscience, you know.

  9. “The mind and the brain are the same thing described in different ways and they make us who we are. Trying to suggest one causes the other is like saying wetness causes water.”  The Mind/Brain Problem dealt with in one mere assertive sentence, with an overly simplistic assertion about the locus of identity thrown in for spice.  Why must these articles berating people for being ascientific buffoons always turn ironic?

    1.  On the other hand, I think it’s an important point to make even if it should more properly be voiced as a possibility than absolute truth.  Most people seem to accept the dichotomy that either the brain causes the mind or the mind is independent of brain; I think it’s important to consider the possibility that mind is to brain as wetness is to water.

          1. are you a programmer?

            Besides, justify “mind” is a quality. Equally ridiculous on its surface.

          2. I don’t think wetness is a quality (of water, anyway) in the first place.  But you’re clearly missing the point of the analogy regardless.  I don’t really care if you choose to be closed-minded.

          3. You can’t just shut the conversation down cause its not going your way! That’s no fun. The original quote seems a bit hand wavy to me, but I think I get it anyway. 

            Come on though, you have to acknowledge that the word ‘mind’ is a noun and therefore the thing it refers to is an object. It doesn’t have to have materiality. Wetness is a quality of something. Even water can be said to have wetness. You might say it has a wetness factor of one.

          4. Come on though, you have to acknowledge that the word ‘mind’ is a noun and therefore the thing it refers to is an object.

            “Wetness” is also a noun.  By the “logic” of this argument wetness must also be an object.

            I’m not sure this conversation is really going your way either.

      1. ‘Wetness’ is the phenomenological experience of a quality of liquid; minds and sensora are necessary prerequisites to such an experience.  One cannot then say that minds are the phenomenological experience of brains.  It’s an awful, tortured analogy, apparently trying to say something like ‘Minds are a qualitative emergent affect of brains.’, which is a basic assertion of a school of thought, yes, but is not ‘proven science’, and certainly doesn’t belong in an article whose main purpose is to let the reader know that their popular ideas about neuroscience conflict with cold, hard fact.

        1. ‘Wetness’ is the phenomenological experience of a quality of liquid; minds and sensora are necessary prerequisites to such an experience.

          Yes, analogies — by definition — break down when you analyze them across too many variables. If they did not they would not be “analogies” but “identities”.

          One cannot then say that minds are the phenomenological experience of brains.

          One can say it, and I think sensibly so. It’s incomplete but I think it’s actually pointing in the right direction.”Yes, Virginia, there is a homonculus.” What do you think it is you’re aware of if not the state of your brain?

          Minds are a qualitative emergent affect of brains.’, which is a basic assertion of a school of thought, yes, but is not ‘proven science’,

          Which is exactly what I said.

    2. All day long, the green mountain depends upon the white cloud and the white cloud upon the green mountain.

  10. There *are* differences between the Left and Right hemispheres, and it *is* useful to compare and contrast them. It’s just that the current scientific view is far more sharpened and nuanced than our earlier scientific and popular conventions.

    Ian McGilchrist has done a great job with describing the currently understood and important distinctions between the hemispheres, as well as how they work together – and most importantly, why we’ve developed their individual specializations. His book “The Master and His Emissary” is great on this topic, as well as being great science and just great writing. I would go so far as to consider it required reading for anyone who’s interested in how we think.

    1. Of course there are differences between the hemispheres in most people. But when most people describe “left brain” and “right brain”, those aren’t the differences you’re going to think of. The pop-psych stuff is simply wrong.

      (Early sentence “It led to a popularization that has since been proved to be entirely false”, so the guy you link to clearly understands the issue at play here. :P)

  11. Beware of the folks science which claims that things it doesn’t agree with are folk science.

    The mistaken/misleading comments about depression are enough, by themselves, to invalidate the cited article.

  12. > Scrub your brain of these “folk neuroscience” misconceptions

    If we had any brain plasticity at all we might be able to achieve that.  Too bad once you reach a certain age you’ve already gotten all the brain cells you’re ever going to get.


  13. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor will explain to you the differences between the left and right hemispheres in twenty minutes of what might be the most interesting damned Ted-talk ever.

  14. Another to add to the list: “the average person only uses 10 percent of his brain at any one time”, as if we are only using a fraction of full cognitive capacity.  The brain contains many different areas specialized for particular tasks.  Using them all simultaneously is called “having a seizure”.  Personally I wouldn’t want to use my gustatory cortex when I’m trying to remember where I left my keys. 

  15. Add “thinking like Sherlock Holmes” to the list. Your conscious has no control over your unconscious. To think otherwise is folly.

  16. I took a neuro class and ever since that right/left stuff has made me cringe.  They gave great examples of people who underwent a hemispherectomy (removal of half of the brain, usually due to life-threatening seizures) but still managed to develop creative or logical skills.  
    Also, just about everything about young developing minds.

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