Left-brain vs. Right-brain Learning Styles

Are you a creative person? Then you might be a right-brain thinker. What about your analytical skills? If you’re a highly organized and logical person, then you may be a left-brain thinker. These distinctions have been said to guide students and workers alike to function more efficiently in their everyday lives. That is, knowing what type of “thinker” you are can help you determine what your learning style is. For example, it may be useful to know whether or not you are a visual learner. So check the infographic below to find out what you are!

The Left-Right Brain Infogaphic

I recently received an email from OnlineCollege.org about a fancy new infographic. It was basically a spam email, but it caught my attention and I decided to check it out.

This is a quite well-made infographic that really showcases its information in a very user-friendly manner.

But let’s make something clear. There are some glaring problems that render this whole thing so Swiss that, at best, it could only truly be described as cheese. Pop-psychology cheese.

And we all know who likes cheese, right?

Brain from Pinky and the Brain

…the Brain

So let me be clear. As pretty as the infographic is, it has two major problems: 1) The idea of “right-brainers” and “left-brainers” is a grossly exaggerated misnomer; and 2) learning styles don’t exist.

A Theory Full of Holes

I don’t like using brain structures to make statements about one’s personality or behavior – as if you can simply chalk it up to hemispherical brain activity. After all, scientists can like art, and artists can like science. So then who cares what side is being activated during some random activity?

We’re really talking about neural-stereotyping here, akin to what too many people do here in Japan, stereotyping based on blood type. But to take it one step further, no one actually goes and gets their brains scanned – they just assume they are right vs. left based on the right-left discriminations. After all, if you go through all the trouble of looking through the relevant information, and you finally conclude that you’re actually a right-brain thinker because you’re quite artistic… doesn’t that take some serious analytical skills? Maybe you’re actually a left-brain thinker.

Regardless, almost every theory you see in bookstores and on the internet associated with “left and right brainers” is packed with nonsense. In fact, if you look at the infographic above, most of the advice given for someone arbitrarily identified as a right- or left-brainer is just as viable for one as the other.

It looks like most of the infographic is just a pretty amalgamation of Barnum statements. Things like “remember to prioritize finishing a project” (right-sider) and “organize your notes well” (left-sider) can be said for either; despite the fact that they seem somewhat contradictory (what is prioritizing if not organizing?). And what’s this nonsense about “If you’re a left-brain person, you should not argue often with the teacher?” Is this really helpful to anyone? I suppose that means if you’re the creative type, it may be okay to argue with the teacher often. Thanks, professor.

But instead of talking about specific problems with the infographic above, it’s more insightful to talk about why this is false in more general terms. (But seriously… you’re a left-brain thinker if you “read sitting down?” Don’t get me started.)

Pop-Psychology Cheese

The Problem with Learning Styles

I remember that even when I was in my teens, the first time I heard about the idea of learning styles, I thought it was bogus. I never bought the idea that one could be a visual learner any more than an audial or kinetic one. It doesn’t even sound intuitively viable to me (though almost everyone believes it). For example, if you’re anything but a visual thinker, how do you expect to remember someone’s face? (Hint: Visually!) Why, everyone always claimed to be visual learners anyways. Where are all the olfactory learners? After all, we know that olfaction is strongly linked to memory.

The following video is presented by Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia. He explains why almost everyone (90% of students from his university) believes in learning types, and how we know they don’t actually exist. He specifically talks about visual vs. audial vs. kinetic, which are not really the focus of the infographic above, but it doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that there is no evidence to support any notion of learning styles. So teachers, listen up:

If that last part sounded confusing, he has a brief clarification. If you want an elaboration, podcasting psychologist Michael Britt has a 40-minute interview with Willingham on his website.

So just what should teachers do with this information? The best lessons are those that involve as many senses as possible. For example, if you’re going to learn about botany, it would be great to take students outside and have them learn about in the field. That is such a more engaging experience. However, this is obviously not practical for most subjects, and often not possible. Teachers should not be worrying about students in terms of these fancy learning styles. Sure, students are individuals, and not every student will understand the same points; but it’s more important to teach with the students’ motivations and interests in mind, rather than what you perceive to be a propensity to encode information visually vs. kinaesthetically, etc.

In other words, you don’t have to go out of your way to identify students on these false distinctions. Instead, you should look for material – regardless of what sense they involve – that are appropriate for whatever lesson you’re doing. So if the subject material is cartography, only a completely incompetent teacher would try to devise an audial assignment for audial learners.

You might say “well if it doesn’t harm anyone, then who cares? Let teachers do what they want to do!” I don’t think anyone thinks that it will be particularly harmful to students, but spending time on it is a waste, and I can’t imagine it would be a bad thing to know the truth about this myth. And the truth is that no evidence exists to support the notion of distinct learning styles.

The Problem with the Left-Right Brain Discrimination

Considering how many books there are on the left-right brain distinction, I’m possibly in the minority of those who don’t even believe that we should be thinking of such a split. But I always cringe a little when I see articles or books saying “if you’re creative and you like art, you must be a right-brain thinker; if you’re analytical and you like puzzles, you must be a left-brain thinker.” This is a false dichotomy.

One experiment – by Fink, Marshall, and their colleagues, published in the prestigious journal Nature – had participants look at a picture of tiny letters (like the letter “A”) which joined together to form a big letter (like the letter “E”). They were asked to say what they saw – the small letters, or the big one they formed together. The left side of the brain lit up when they looked at the small letters, while the right side lit up when they looked at the big picture.

A year later, the same researchers decided to do the same experiment with one variation. Instead of letters, they used objects. So for example, a bunch of tiny diamonds may have formed to make the shape of a big fish. In this experiment, the results were the opposite – the left brain lit up when processing the big picture.

The two hemispheres are different, but people believe in the pop-psychology nonsense that self-help books and foolish motivational speakers peddle all too easily. Take language, for example. Do you have any idea how complicated language is, in neural terms? There are are staggering amount of things involved in communicating, from a neuroscience standpoint.

In fact, just as an example, Chinese, Japanese, English speakers have radically different neural experiences when they engage in conversation, because their languages are so varied. Mandarin, for example, involves tonal distinctions that do not exist in English. Obviously this already adds another dimension to the brain activity. For example, Japanese and Chinese speakers may have more pictorially-related neural activity in the right side of the brain due to the more illustrative aspects of their written language, but that doesn’t mean they’re more creative than English speakers.

Yale University professor and avid blogger Steven Novella also wrote about the left-brain distinction recently. He mentioned that even when the corpus callosum – responsible for connecting the two hemispheres – is cut (a common treatment for relieving severe epileptic seizures) and a patient holds a phone up to one of his ears, both of the hemispheres are in fact activated. In contrast to something like language, which is mostly (but not exclusively) localized in the left side, both ears “connect extensively to the auditory cortical regions in both hemispheres.” Can you see the problem here? This is already far more science than any self-help learning-style theorist has considered.

[spoiler effect=”slide” show=”Novella’s take”]I’m also pretty sure that I know what Novella is complaining about when he says this…

The other left-brain/right-brain claim I heard recently was from an advertiser hoping that I would link to an article they wrote on my blog as a way of driving traffic to their online college course website (for which reason I will not provide a link to them). The article, ironically, was pushing the worst kind of left-brain/right-brain nonsense.

The point of the article was that left-brained people have different learning styles than right-brained people. I guess this means that this online college can tailor their courses to your learning style. I would stay far away from any institution of learning that bases its teaching philosophy on rank pseudoscience.

According to their article, if you are a left-brain person then your learning style is “linear” and “reality-based”, while right-brained people are “holistic” and “fantasy-oriented.” They then give specific advice. Left-brain learners like to be in control, so should volunteer to lead their study group. Right brain learners should be creative in their language choice.

All of this is evidence-free nonsense.

Linear? Check. Fantasy-oriented? Check. I guess OnlineCollege emailed him too.

[/spoiler]

The bottom line is that the two sides of the brain should not be thought of as two radically different processors. The research literature suggests that while hemispheres have subtly distinct processing styles, mental processes are shared among both sides. They do not function exclusively, but complementarily. Researchers like Terence Hines of Pace University would agree. He published an article in the Academy of Management Review, in which he described the over-exaggeration of left- and right-brain discriminations. His research review regarding hemispheric distinctions found that “such claims represent a ‘hemisphere mythology’ that is contradicted by research on the nature of the differences between the hemispheres.”

Conclusion

I have enjoyed some of the articles I read on OnlineCollege.org, but this is really quite pathetic. If we want to help people learn, or function efficiently in everyday lives, we shouldn’t be doing so by advocating learning styles. Some lessons are simply best taught visually, whereas others may be taught more effectively using audio cues. We should focus on individual preferences, and not on this idea that we can be split up by brain hemispheres.

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8 Responses to Left-brain vs. Right-brain Learning Styles

  1. Excellent review of the left brain/right brain issue and of learning styles. Appreciate the link to my site. That infographic on left/right brain is pretty sad. You’re on the nose about it containing a lot of Barnum statements. It also doesn’t speak well of online college either. It’s hard to get rid of what sound like fun ideas like right/left brain.

    Great site. Keep up the good work. Michael

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  4. Tom Oakes says:

    Your article appears to conflate learning styles with the left brain/right brain myth.

    While I applaud your deconstruction of the left brain/right brain myth, I feel compelled to note that the presence or lack of a left brain/right brain dichotomy has no demonstrable connection to the claim that there might be different learning styles from one individual to the next, and you have provided no evidence that it does.

    Without even a cursory demonstration of a connection between these two ideas, your suggestion that lack of a true left brain/right brain dichotomy proves that the theory of learning styles is false remains woefully undemonstrated.

    Perhaps you should consider drawing that connection, if indeed it was your intention to do so, in a subsequent post.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Tom, thanks for the comment!
      You’re right, these are two distinct myths of pop psychology, and I suppose the two are a bit conflated in this. To be honest, the real intention of this article was to debunk these two myths not because they’re particularly similar to one another, but because they are both widely-held beliefs in education. It’s for people (such as teachers) who need a reference to some evidence that learning styles and the left-brain dichotomy are bogus. So basically yes, you’re right. But hopefully the subsections that distinguish these points are clear to the future reader. Anyways, I appreciate the comment!

  5. Don Hanlin says:

    I am a retired high school history teacher and the brother of a psychologist. When I first heard about learning styles, I realized that it meant that the teacher was to blame if a student did not learn. I constantly demanded that my administrators show me the research that proved learning styles. They never could. My brother, on the other hand, could always find the research that debunked the theory. To mock the theory, I was always looking for the “criminal learning style” of low-lifes and other anti-social students. I was ignored or treated badly by administrators (with little teaching experience) who believed everything they learned in schools of education. Meanwhile, I told my students I did not believe in learning styles and that I would prepare them for AP exams and for college. They were very grateful both in class and after they went to college. Keep up the good work.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Don, thanks for the comment!
      I remember once being asked once by a fellow classmate “are you a visual learner or an audial learner?” for a class project. That was the moment I realized that I didn’t buy into that learning-style theory at all – because I was neither. Needless to say, my classmate was very unimpressed with my answer.
      Anyways, it’s always great to hear a evidence-based education story. Thanks for sharing!
      And good luck finding that criminal learning style ;)

  6. Pingback: ¿Con qué lado del cerebro piensa usted? | Psicoloquio

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