Popular Pseudoscience Part I : Brain Bunk

By Adrian Tate

The availability of free information, the ever increasing quality of popular science literature, and the rise of the skeptic movement have together advanced the state of general science understanding without question. But this trend is general and sometimes our need for sound-bites and simplicity trumps the efforts of the Popular Science masters such as Dawkins and Sagan. We cannot escape from the brute fact of life that science is hard, and sometimes the truth is convoluted, dull and unsexy. It is almost inevitable that we as individuals and as a society adopt and popularize incomplete or misinterpreted scientific knowledge, otherwise known as pseudoscience. If so, is pseudoscience not an evil but a necessary application of science into the world? And what, if any, damage does pseudoscience do to our institutions? This is a question that we will begin to grapple with in this short series on popular pseudoscience.

One might guess, quite reasonably that the worst infiltration pseudoscience could inflict upon society would be to distort the curricula of our children’s textbooks. And indeed one finds it hard to imagine more damage to learning and advancement of understanding than has been performed by the intelligent designers and their attempts to remove scientific fact of evolution from the textbooks of children in the Southern states of the USA. Creationism though, has not had much traction outside of the US, has enormously strong opposition, and most importantly can be seen quite clearly to be the deliberate attempts of a specific group to back-validate its own religious convictions, which puts it at a clear disadvantage outside the strongholds of those supporters.  What then, of more subtle and ubiquitous pseudoscience. Does it exist and if so, is it dangerous too?

Let’s stay with education and learning, and look at the left/right brain theory, which says that each hemisphere of the brain is a locus of specialized cognition, with the “creative processes” occurring in the right hemisphere and the “logical” or “rational” processes the domain of the left hemisphere. Under this theory, creativity is deeply mysterious and evades understanding partly because to do so engages its polar and conceptual opposite left brain hemisphere. What is so alluring about the theory may be the instant classification it provides for ourselves and others – those with a propensity to favor logical thinking are labeled “left-brainers” and their opposites are “right-brainers”. Interestingly, the former is often a pejorative term while the latter appears to be used to validate people’s disinterest or ignorance of all things scientific.

You are so familiar with this theory that you need little convincing of its ubiquity. But just to validate, please type “left-brain” into Google and sift through (some of) the two hundred million results in your own time. Of most fun are the hundreds of quizzes and questionnaires to help you deduce where you sit in the left-right spectrum. For example the Vancouver Art school offers an online questionnaire to test whether you are a left-brain or right-brain thinker (and so you can decide on a career accordingly).

There are dozens of authors whose book titles (and presumably content) address this theory directly, of which here are a few random examples

It may be a surprise to many that there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support the left-brain right-brain theory, and that most neuroscientists regard it as a popular distortion of scientific fact, at best. Nobel laureate Roger Sperry’s work with split-brain patients in the 1960s and 70s served to popularize the idea that there are specialist brain hemispheres but that work made no statements about the location of creativity in the brain (Sperry, 1961). As is normally the case, the truth is much subtler and more detailed than we would prefer. What Sperry and his student Mike Gazzaniga actually showed is that the left and right brain regions can operate somewhat independently and that to some degree, certain brain functions do correspond to certain brain regions. However, though it was shown that the left-brain shows some dominance in language construction, this was shown to be variable and delocalized. There was no evidence presented that creative thought was performed by the right-brain hemisphere. Gazzaniga later became the world’s authority on functional lateralization, and wrote a whole book chapter titled “Left brain Right Brain : a debunking”, in which he began

“Where does all of this conjecture come from? How did some laboratory findings of limited generality get so outrageously misinterpreted? Why were they picked up so hungrily by the press and then embraced by every sort of scientific dilettante? There are several reasons. The left-brain/right-brain dichotomy was simple and understandable and provided a way to talk about modern brain research and how it applied to everyday experience. Certainly no one was going to argue that people have artistic-intuitive skills and logical-linguistic skills. Prima facie there are manifestly different activities of mind. So science is used to prove that one set of skills is in the left brain and another in the right, which in turn proves that mental skills are different, and therefore able to be differentially trained. The image of one part of the brain doing one thing and the other part something entirely different was there, and that it was a confused concept seemed to make no difference. (Gazzaniga, 1985)”

Today, neuroscientists speculate that creativity is a way of using the whole brain most effectively because more recent research has shown further evidence that creativity is not the domain of any particular brain region:

“Taken together, creative thinking does not appear to critically depend on any single mental process or brain region, and it is not especially associated with right brains (Dietrich A, 2010)”

If creativity is a way of using the whole brain rather than the specific actions of one brain region, then logical/rational thought cannot be described as the opposite of creativity – a point to which we will return. To understand more of the actual science of Gazzaniga and Sperry as well as more recent research, I refer interested readers to some of the very accessible popular neuroscience books listed at the end of this article.

So is left/right brain theory a harmless myth that will eventually slip away? It might surprise you that the Gazzaniga book I referenced was published in 1985, because the theory seems more popular today than twenty seven years ago. If this were just a popular over-simplification with little practical application then we’d be tempted to call it harmless and move on. But when we see that the theory has been adopted by educators and may have influenced education policy then we have deeper issue. Unfortunately, another Google of “education right-brain” will show you how deep the connection between the theory and educational practices may be.  As is usual with pseudoscience, it carries so much weight because it is described as “the latest research”. Let us take as an example, an article on the website of Scholastic – the world’s biggest seller of children’s textbooks – which urges teachers to “incorporate a new ‘neurological teaching method’ into your classes” and to understand their own neurological teaching preferences in order to understand the neurological learning preferences of their students (it is not clear what is meant by “middle-brain”)

“[H]ow can we adapt our teaching to reach and engage as many of them as possible, as often as possible? Interestingly, the answer lies in first knowing ourselves as teachers. One way to do this is to understand how our own “neurological style” influences the way we teach. Each one of us has a left-, a right-, or a middle-brain preference, and believe it or not this significantly influences our teaching patterns. By understanding the processes at work in the brain, we can better help our students to explore their own individual preferences.”

We may also be tempted to give pseudoscience a pass if it were a case of adopting terminology only – a shorthand perhaps to capture more complicated concepts that we need not understand. But this article appears to suggest that the pseudoscience should be put to good practical application

“[I]f you are right-brain dominant, it is your intuitive, emotional right hemisphere that guides the decisions you make throughout the day. If you are left-brain dominant, it is your sequential, time-oriented left hemisphere which tells you how to think, what to believe, and what choices to make. Those who are middle-brain dominant tend to be more flexible than either the left- or the right-brain folks; however, you often vacillate between the two hemispheres when you make decisions. You sometimes get confused when decisions need to be made because, neurologically speaking, you could do most tasks through either a left-brain or a right-brain method!”

Was this article written by a fanciful blogger or lay person? Unfortunately, no. To quote the article itself  “Carol Philips, Ed.D, is an associate professor in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she is designing and directing a professional development program for teaching fellows”.  This is strong and disturbing evidence that the theory has played and does plays a role in the development of teaching methods at our schools.

There are four concepts that derive directly from the left/right brain theory that we may see evidence for in our own education and teaching, as well as in popular culture.

  • Creativity and rationality are opposite brain functions
  • Creativity and rationality themselves are opposites
  • Each of has a propensity to think logically or creatively
  • Each of us has a preferred neurological learning style that coincides with brain specialty

I can see where each of these ideas has shown itself in my own education and work. I used to believe that the best engineers were those with the best technical knowledge. As I stated in a previous article, through years or hiring and working with scientific engineers I’ve learned that the very finest engineers are actually those that can learn to creatively find the most effective, novel or elegant solution to a technical problem.  Engineering creativity then (which I assume is analogous to scientific creativity), is the ability to use one’s brain in logical but non-habitual ways, and seems to match with the emerging neuroscientific evidence that creativity is not a specialized brain function in which some people naturally excel. Perhaps neuroscience will show creativity to be a skillful, learned technique of using the brain for imaginative thought, in the way that I observe in those skilled engineers.

It is clear that under no circumstances can one describe creativity as the polar opposite of the logical process. This has implications in education and in popular culture. If we shed the left/right brain theory we may begin to recognize the sheer creativity that goes into the engineering and scientific advancements we see every day. And perhaps we can then also shelve the tedious labels that we apply to those on either end of the imaginary spectrum – our schools, at the very least, should be places that imaginary labels and imaginary constraints have no place.

The last, more subtle point about learning styles has become a buzz topic in US education in recent years, a point addressed by training authors Stolovitch and Keeps:

“In recent years, much press has been given to the importance of learning styles. What exactly is this, is it preference, habit or inborn trait? General consensus is that a learning style is a mode of learning that is most effective for a person. It helps the individual obtain superior learning results. Here’s the bad news : More than 25 years of this and related themes has not provided any form of conclusive evidence that matching the form of the instruction to a learning style improves learning or even attention (Keeps, 2011)”

Though we are not modifying the curricula of our children with pseudoscience we may be doing something even worse – using pseudoscientific methodology to define how to teach them. We cannot hope to teach our children well if we do not understand the very basics of how the human brain operates and learns  – something that the emerging field of educational neuroscience will seek to reverse and correct.  There is no grand conspiracy here, no protagonists or vendors of brain bunk (though I find a Harvard Professor peddling pseudoscience particularly distasteful).  The reason that this has been allowed to infiltrate our education system is because of the utter ubiquity of our shabby understanding. What better evidence can there be that we have a collective responsibility to uncover, counter and erode pseudoscientific theory and replace it with better-informed and better explained interpretations of real science?
Dietrich A, K. R. (2010). A review of EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies of creativity and insight. Psychol Bull., 136(5):822-48.

Gazzaniga, M. (1985). The Social Brain. New York: Basic Books.

Keeps, H. D. (2011). Telling aint Training. ASTD.

Sperry, R. (1961). “Cerebral Organization and Behavior: The split brain behaves in many respects like two separate brains, providing new research possibilities”. Science 133 , 1749–1757.
Suggested reading –  Popular Neuroscience
Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2011). Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (1st ed.). New York, NY: Ecco. ISBN 978-0061906107.

Eagleman, David (2011). Incognito, the Secret lives of the Brain. Pantheon. ISBN 0307377334

Doidge, Norman (2011). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Silberman, Books. ISBN 9780670038305 

Ratey, John (2001). A User’s guide to the brain. Pantheon. ISBN 0375701079

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0 Responses to Popular Pseudoscience Part I : Brain Bunk

  1. Richard says:

    Nice one. Think some quotation marks got lost there though – could you fix it..? I thought you’d gone mad half way through the article for a second there!

  2. Just part of the psychobabble industry, offering an illusion of personal insight. Compare the personalised diet fads, described in books that sell by the million.

    But possibly more damaging than diet fads, since the false dichotomy between analytic and creative thinking misleads us in how we think of ourselves and what we are doing.

  3. Adrian Tate says:

    Yes, all the quotation marks have been lost in the edit. The site admins are fixing it. Sorry about that!

  4. Sorry about that. Fixed now (I hope)

  5. Hans B. says:

    That’s very interesting. I’d never thought of the effects of pseudo-science on education besides the obvious creationist hokus pokus that we hear of from time to time. I guess for it to even obscure the debate on global warming it would have to have its roots in education though.

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