Are You Left-Brained or Right-Brained?

If you are a regular reader of my blog posts, you know that I frequently talk about the two hemispheres of the brain and how they have dramatically different functions. The left brain is the “digital” brain; it knows facts and figures, deploys logic, and is the champion of math and science. The right brain is often labeled the “analog” brain; it is in charge of creativity, beauty, dreams, and is the champion of art and music.  Working together, these two parts of our brain can power us to do amazing things.  But perhaps you have heard of or been labeled as “left-brained” or “right-brained”, indicating that a person might be “wired” to be more dominant in one of the two brain hemispheres.

Before I continue, let me ask you to perform a thought experiment. Suppose it was true that in fact one of the two brain hemispheres could be dominant. Would you be able to confidently predict whether you were left or right brain dominant?  Now let’s further postulate that you could somehow control this such that your brain would be either left or right brain dominant.  Which one of the hemispheres would you choose?  When I think about this, it strikes me that if it was a 100% choice, left vs right, either one would be a disaster.  You have probably met people that were so analytical, they had no appreciation of humor or irony.  And I personally know some truly creative people that are a total mess trying to manage their business or financial affairs.  So, it truly takes an appropriate mix of the left and right brain for us to have a balance.

I was very interested to see an article from Harvard Medical School addressing the left vs. right brain issue. The story confirms that there is definitely two different set of functions that the two hemispheres control; we know this from studying people who have injured part of their brain.  However, when it comes to traits such as creativity or a tendency to be rational versus intuitive, the Harvard study finds no substantive evidence that these reside only in one part of the brain.  They acknowledge that having no evidence to the contrary to not “prove” that the unique functions of the two hemispheres is not present.  The Harvard study incorporated a University of Utah study that looked at the brain scans of more than 1,000 young people between the ages of 7 and 29 and divided different areas of the brain into 7,000 regions to determine whether one side of the brain was more active or connected than the other side. No evidence of “sidedness” was found. The authors concluded that the notion of some people being more left-brained or right-brained is more a figure of speech than an anatomically accurate description.  Here is the link to the Harvard article if you want to check it out –

Hmmm, disappointed?  Were you really sure that you were right-brained and now I have dashed your hopes?  Well, don’t fret, there are more study results that will be coming in that will shed additional light on this subject. In the meantime, there are definitive things you can do that will ignite your creative thinking (regardless of whether that is only coming from the right brain … or the left … or both …).  One item mentioned in the Harvard article comes from a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. I have incorporated exercises from this book into my workshops and the results really amazed me because I am convinced that … I cannot draw.   Even as a kid, my freehand drawings were just not good.  The book explains that when you are asked to draw something, your left-brain has a concrete idea of what that should look like. But the right brain is the one that is driving the creativity of a free hand drawing. So, what you create is a poor representation of what the left brain “thinks” it should look like, even if you are looking at a picture.

Try this experiment: take out a blank sheet of paper and try to freehand draw the image below:

How’d you do?  Did you get close to something that resembles the elephant above?

Regardless of how that first attempt came out, now do this: take a new piece of paper and try to freehand draw this next image:

By turning the elephant upside down, you are now just looking at lines and shapes and not an “elephant”.  When I do this exercise, nearly everyone draws a more accurate elephant by removing their left brain from the exercise and merely “copying” what they see.

Want to get even more creative?  Try this exercise: gather a group of people and give them each two blank pieces of paper and a pen/pencil.  Give them this instruction: “Draw a vase”.  Give them time to draw.  Ask them to put that drawing aside and give them a new instruction: “On the other sheet, draw a beautiful receptacle for flowers”.  They could, of course, draw the identical vase they drew in the first part, but no one ever does. All of the drawings get much more elaborate.  And creative.  One of my exercise participants drew a sketch of a woman. When I asked him what they represented, he said, “That is my wife, she is a beautiful receptacle for flowers!”  Wow, what creativity!  Yet, that only came about because I gave an instruction that left open the door for great creativity to shove its way in.

In the end, maybe right brain vs left brain is a non-existent choice, but we can still strive for and derive great benefit from getting more creative in whatever form.  The key is creating an environment where you and those you work with have the empowerment to get creative without worry about ridicule or recrimination.  Not the easiest task given the sterile environment that most financial services professional work in.  However, the higher up you are in the institution, the more control you have over making creativity that leads to innovation a priority, nay a strategic initiative that is critical to your long-term success.