Thursday, January 11, 2007

Right Brain, Left Brain

We often like to find simple answers to things. We want to be able to categorize people or events in to the right box. One way of sorting used by many is whether someone is “right brain” or “left brain”. The thinking goes that those who are left brain dominant are better at math and science. Logic oriented. Facts matter. Those who are “right brain” dominant are the creative types. Artists, writers, musicians, etc.

This was based on research done by neuroscientist Roger Sperry looking at people who had a split brain. The link between the two hemispheres of their brains had been severed to treat epilepsy. Some of these people were subjects in a study by Sperry to look at how our brain behaves in certain tasks. The book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was based on some of this research.

So if we can be divided by which hemisphere of our brain dominates, how do you explain people like me? I have loved to draw from the time I was quite young. But I was also very good at math and science. My degrees are in chemistry and business, not art. My dad was an engineer who worked at Lincoln Labs doing research. But he also pursued painting and woodworking as hobbies at various times in his life. And, he was an amateur actor, and self-taught musician. Which box do you put us into?

When I began to work with polymer clay I was fascinated to learn about artists like Nan Roche ( ), who is a scientist with NIH in her full time job. Yet she wrote the book about polymer clay, The New Clay. And Kathleen Dustin ( , who is one of the leading artists in this media, has a degree in mathematics. Julia Sober ( ), who is an award winning polymer clay artist, is also a Radiation Safety Officer. And the amateur ranks swell with many more examples of the same dichotomy of talent.

This has always fascinated me. Then one Sunday morning, as I was driving to a show, I was listening to NPR on the radio and the program Studio 360 was on. The program was looking at this very issue of the right brain/left brain dichotomy. Can we really be divided so neatly?

Well, the answer is not really. It is more likely that we are training other parts of our brain to be engaged in certain activities when we go through exercises as described in the book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Not that this is a bad thing. But the left brain is not shutting down. The left brain actually is more focused on details, while the right brain is looking at overall patterns. So engaging both parts of the brain in the task is the ultimate goal. Letting each side of the brain play on its particular strengths.

Creativity, it turns out, is not determined so much by our right brain, as it is by drive. The balance between the front and back of the brain is what really seems to make the difference. It is not the natural talent that distinguishes as much as the drive.

So we can learn to draw, or sculpt, write or play a musical instrument. But without the drive, creative work does not evolve. Perhaps this is why you hear over and over again from artists of all sorts that their work is something they have to do. That drive propels them to write, draw, or compose. They are driven to create.

Maybe it is time to rethink those boxes. Are you who you thought you were?

You can hear the full broadcast from NPR here:

1 comment:

Elaine said...

I run into this often - in my technical discipline, computer science, I am told I am too 'artsy'. And in polymer clay, I'm the math girl.

I've always drawn and painted. Clay drew me because it is a technical craft with many discoveries left to make.

Of course, many of the clay friends I've made shush me when I say this! I'll continue with my experiments.