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Joseph LeDoux

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Why the "Right Brain" Idea is Wrong-Headed

Posted: 05/29/09 03:01 PM ET

We're living in the golden age of the brain. Researchers around the world are trying to figure out how Woody Allen's "second favorite organ" works. The US Society for Neuroscience has more than 40,000 members, and the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) puts up impressive numbers from the rest of the planet. These legions of scientists, and their pioneering predecessors, have produced a tremendous amount of information about the brain, and also information about what goes wrong in the brains of people with neurological and psychiatric disorders. That's not to say we've got it all figured out, but we're making progress.

As someone who studies the brain and also tries to disseminate information about the brain in a user-friendly, but scientifically accurate, way, I cringe when I read some pop accounts of brain research. For example, I recently saw this CNN headline: "Will right-brainers rule this century?" Clicking on the link took me to OPRAH.com, which promised, less hesitantly, to explain "Why right-brainers will rule this century." At least CNN considered the possibility that there was some question about the veracity of the statement. Oprah's headline implied it's a done deal.

The current right brain craze was triggered by Daniel Pink's best selling book, A Whole New Mind. In the interview with Oprah, Pink, a former speech writer for Al Gore, says "in many professions, what used to matter most were abilities associated with the left side of the brain: linear, sequential, spreadsheet kind of faculties. Those still matter, but they're not enough. What's important now are the characteristics of the brain's right hemisphere: artistry, empathy, inventiveness, big-picture thinking. These skills have become first among equals in a whole range of business fields." Oprah bought 4500 copies.

Pink's basic premise is absolutely correct: that there are multiple ways of thinking and that social institutions (schools, businesses, etc) have tended to overemphasize verbal skills and linear thought in the past. But this is hardly a new idea. Howard Gardner has been talking about multiple forms of intelligence for years, partly in response to the emphasis modern society places on verbal, linear, logical thinking. And Daniel Goleman has made a similar point in his books on "emotional intelligence" (the ability to use empathy and other emotions rather than logic alone as a tool for success in social life and business).

What I don't care for so much is the way Pink links these kinds of ideas to the two sides of the brain. But this is not so new either. There have been pop ideas about unleashing the right brain for a long time (remember the hugely successful Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain?). You can in fact find lots of books about one side of the brain or the other. But they are mostly by people who don't work on the brain.

Each year I attend a number of neuroscience conferences. This year, for example, I've been to meetings in Spain, Israel, France, England, as well in a variety of regions in the US. In all these conferences, I can't recall a single instance where one of my colleagues used the term "right brain" or "left brain." These are pop neuroscience oversimplifications.

Left-Right talk in the popular media dates back to the 60s and was mostly stimulated by research on split-brain patients, patients in whom the left and right sides are literally separated. In these people, the left and right hemispheres cannot communicate. In most of us though, the two sides are closely interconnected and work together in creating our mental and behavioral capacities. Attributing functions to one side or the other just divides the "black box" in two. This kind of over-simplification is unnecessary given all we've learned about how the brain works.

We have very detailed information about various tiny areas on the left and right side, how cells in these areas are connected to other cells in the same or different areas, and what neurotransmitters, enzymes, and genes are in the many of the cells that allow them to do their job as part of a network or system. We can trace a stimulus from the eye to the neocortex, and follow that stimulus through pathways that give rise to our perceptions. We know a great deal about how memories are formed as information is routed from neuron to neuron and ultimately stored in patterns of synaptic connectivity. We know the connections that cause your blood pressure to rise or your palms to sweat when you are afraid. We have clues about which circuits and transmitters are altered in schizophrenia, depression, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and Parkinson's disease.

Proponents of Left-Brain Right-Brain ideas would probably say that I'm focusing on the wrong thing -- that they are talking about much more global aspects of brain function, the overall function of the right side or left side. I would respond that there is no overall function of a side. Areas, whether on a small or large scale, don't have functions. Functions are products of systems. Systems are made up of cells that are interconnected by synapses. Systems span the brain vertically and horizontally -- they are not isolated in one hemisphere.

But what about all those studies showing that this area lights up in the right hemisphere when you do this and a different area lights up in the left when you do that? Just because an area is slightly more active on the right side of the brain in a given task does not mean that the task is a "right brain" task. Sure, the task may engage the activated area a little more on the right side, but not the whole right side, and it probably also engages the same or other areas on the left side, just not quite as much. Leaping from an observation of slightly more activity in one area on one side to a conclusion about function of the right brain is guilt by association, a fallacious argument from the part to the whole.

I actually did my PhD studying split-brain patients, working with the guy who has studied more of these patients than anyone else in the world -- Mike Gazzaniga. It was from Mike that I learned the pitfalls of over attributing functions to hemispheres. When Mike refers to ideas such as the "left brain interpreter," he's not talking about the left brain itself but about a system that is preferentially in the left hemisphere and that helps create conscious states by attributing meaning to events through the use of language. It's not the left hemisphere itself that does this, but a system, a select set of interconnected neurons in the left hemisphere, that does this.

OK. Now that I've ranted, let me take a step back. What Pink really means is that certain kinds of thinking have not been emphasized as much as they could have been. He was probably using the left brain/right brain language as a metaphor for psychological functions. As I noted above, it is perfectly legitimate to talk about different kinds of capacities or traits, including ways of thinking, that distinguish people, and that might be relevant to success in a changing world. That's what psychology is all about. We indeed know that some people are more visual/ intuitive and others more verbal/rational (at least in relative sense). But it is unnecessary, and I think misleading, to muddy the waters by reifying the left and right sides of the brain as functionally independent structures that explain where logic and intuition come from. Most discussions that take place about psychological capacities that are said to be left brain or right brain functions could be had without mentioning the brain at all.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to the application of neuroscience to broad issues that concern us. In my books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, I was pretty speculative about the implications of brain research in animals for understanding the human mind in all its glory but also in its agony. I write rock/pop songs about how mind and brain work, and sing these with my band The Amygdaloids, in part as a way of informing people about brain research in a novel way through music (but still striving for scientific accuracy). And I've participated in conferences that explore the implications of brain research for important social goals, like peace, prosperity and ethics.

For example, a few years ago, I was invited to a conference on the political uses and abuses of fear. The keynote was to be given by Al Gore, Pink's former boss. The VP had heard that researchers like me had made a lot of progress in uncovering how fear works at a very detailed level in the brain and he wanted to know if there were some lessons from the neuroscience of fear that might be helpful in his discussion of the politics of fear. We spent several hours exploring the intricate workings of the fear system, which involves select networks in a part of the brain called the amygdala. Note that we didn't discuss the whole amygdala, nor did we discuss the right or left amygdala. Instead, we discussed specific circuits that are present in both amygdalae, and that by virtue of connections with other areas make up the fear processing system. We considered how once fear is aroused by activation of these amygdala circuits, biological processes in the brain and body perpetuate fear and lead to the generalization of fear to stimuli or situations that might not have been feared previously. He absorbed the details and gave an insightful lecture on the politics of fear that included a good deal of information from brain research.

This is not a book review. Instead, it's a comment about knowledge and its use. Talking about the right brain as the way of the future seems to me a step backwards to a time when intuitive impressions about the brain were all we had. We need to inject a dose of cold hard analytic facts about the brain into this discussion so we can figure out how to best capitalize on the native (and remarkable) capacities for reason and passion, analysis and synthesis, detail and context, that co-exist as a result of the exquisitely wired networks distributed within and between the hemispheres of our brains.

 
 
 

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