The Brain is Not Simply Split into Two Totally Separate Halves, and Other Lessons on Skepticism

left brain right brain WRONG

One year ago, I wrote an article that skewered the infographic that one website had been sending to the public. I showed the evidence that contradicted what was claimed, and I ended up busting two persistent myths in that article. The first myth was that the two hemispheres of the brain (right and left) were radically different sections of the brain; the second myth was that people have distinct learning styles, which make some people “visual learners,” while others are “audial learners,” etc. I don’t mind explaining this stuff to laypeople, but there’s something unnerving about the email I got from one of the creators of the infographic.

I was at my computer and my mouse started wandering. I admit it – I was bored at work. I decided to check my skeptikai-mail. Sure enough, there was an eye-catching letter waiting to be blogged about.

Subject: “Left Vs. Right Brain” Infographic
Date: Tue, January 08, 2013

Hello,

I’m a part of a team that produces infographics, and I just wanted to thank you for posting one of ours. We’re so glad you enjoyed it!

I also wanted to reach out because we were hoping you could add a link back to the original source of the graphic. We feel our blog may be a great resource to your readers, plus, you may find more infographics that you’ll want to post.

Here’s your post along with its original source:

“Left Vs. Right Brain” http://skeptikai.com/2012/01/19/left-brain-vs-right-brain-learning-styles/

If you have any questions, please let me know.

Thanks for your time and Happy New Year!

Best,

Miriam

The email in its entirety was very nice (though, come on, she didn’t even get the name of my article right). I appreciated the New Year sentiments as well. But still, we’re talking about the infographic that keeps those annoying myths alive. It’s infographics like that which make it harder for me to focus on other topics that interest me. I don’t want to have to write about the same busted myth over and over… but thanks to people like her, it looks like I’ll need to.

Half a year after my article came out in January 2012, there was an interesting piece from i09.com. It aptly concluded like this:

I suppose the logical left-brain, creative right-brain myth has a seductive simplicity about it. People can ask – which kind of brain have I got? They can buy an app to target their weaker half. They can categorise languages and people as right-brained or left. It’s tricky to combat that belief system by saying the truth is really more complicated. But it’s worth trying, because it would be a shame if the simplistic myth drowned out the more fascinating story of how our brains really work.

I agree. Learning about the brain is fascinating, and in many cases the truth is even more interesting than the fiction. This is why my email response described all the ways in which I considered her to be academically lazy and irresponsible. I have never reproduced an email on my blog before, but I decided to do so this time, because I feel that it has some good lessons for science in general, and something that I’d hope the readers of this blog can enjoy and learn from.

Date: Wed, Jan 09, 2013

Hello Miriam,

Thank you very much for your kind sentiments and sincere inquiry. And you are correct – I did enjoy the infographic. Unfortunately, it was not for the reason intended.

I feel disinclined to link to your infographic for the simple reason that it would potentially drive more traffic towards what I dedicated my entire blog article to exposing as pseudoscientific nonsense.

…Obviously you did not actually read it.

In fact, it is the scientifically careless and irresponsible creation of such infographics that allows pop-psychology myths to plague science communicators like myself every day. The recent movie “Limitless” (2011) was just another example of how another myth snuck into our popular culture; and since it was a popular film, it gave the myth further life. That is, the premise that we only use 20% of our brain, so a pill that can unlock the other 80% makes us superhuman. As someone who is responsible for communicating information about the brain, I would hope you know that we use 100% of our brains, and it’s even incredibly active while we sleep.

As I explained in my article, “I have enjoyed some of the articles I read on OnlineCollege.org, but this is really quite pathetic.” Indeed, the fact that you so obliviously emailed me despite my lengthy criticism against your infographic just reflects the same lack of scientific rigour with which you obviously created the infographic in the first place.

I feel no discontent with you personally, Miriam, as I have no idea how much of the infographic you are personally responsible for, and presumably this was [not] a diabolic plot to preserve pop-psych myths… but because of your email, you represent the Online College website, and I can only express my lack of satisfaction to you now.

This feeling of being unsatisfied is what the roots of skepticism are all about – doubting the facts, asking the questions, and checking the evidence. You shouldn’t be satisfied until the claim you hear reflects the evidence for it, and not some baseless myth that laypeople unfortunately buy into because yet another seemingly reputable source said so. Skepticism is a feeling that you should have when you hear something incredible so that you don’t just believe everything you hear, and it’s a method that you should use whenever you are disseminating information to the public. This is especially true for a website called “Online College,” which is supposed to educate students. Perhaps it would also be in your best interest to show the URLs of your sources, instead of just the names of the sites at the bottom.

Let me be clear: Your infographic was gorgeous. It was also wrong.

I know, because I examined it with a much-needed dose of skepticism.

With this in mind, I will keep my eyes open for infographics of yours in the future. But hopefully next time, there is a greater emphasis on the info, and not so much on the graphics.

-ryo

 

[February 21 update: Sadly, a few weeks after I posted this article, I got a link from someone who took the title image I used from last year’s article and totally ran with it in the wrong direction. She completely missed the point of the picture and obviously didn’t actually read my piece. I wish she had picked up the title image of this article instead, but I can only assume she didn’t read past the headline.]

Why doesn't anyone read anymore

This is getting embarrassing

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5 Responses to The Brain is Not Simply Split into Two Totally Separate Halves, and Other Lessons on Skepticism

  1. Nuno says:

    The “Left-Right” discussion was always meant as an analogy. I don’t think the infographic was ever meant to be taken literally (i hope not). It’s not that is “wrong”, just shouldn’t be taken literally.

    • Ryo says:

      Hi Nuno! Thanks for the comment.

      Regardless of whether or not the specific infographic I critiqued was meant to be taken literally or not, the larger point I was trying to make is about the way the public largely views this false dichotomy in general. And believe me, based on the ever-growing industry of self-help books and shoddy neuroscience, many authors definitely DO mean that these dichotomies are to be taken literally. After all, most people who talk about these things give advice. So obviously the advice is to be taken seriously. In short, I think you give them too much credit.

      Also, if you read my first article on this topic, you’ll notice that I don’t just go out and say that they’re totally “wrong” (though I assume you were referencing to the title image of this post), what I said is: “The idea of ‘right-brainers’ and ‘left-brainers’ is a grossly exaggerated misnomer.”

      Anyways, thanks again for the email!

  2. Pingback: Las dos mitades del cerebro: personalidad y habilidades matemáticas. | Psicoloquio

  3. Ian says:

    Wow! I can imaginehow unnerving that eexperience was.

    I always though that the left and right brain was more of a metaphor or analogy. It’s not to be taken literally. Though I agree with you on the learning styles, If Ihave plenty of options how could I teach myself one topic I would go with the kinesthetic route. Visuals, audio and others are important for different types of lessons and it just the type of experience we prefer most.

    I noticed that people nowadays focus mostly on the visuals. To be more specific pictures. They focus more on the graphics not the info.

    Most people would not bother to read and digest what you wrote and Most people lack the proper attention span and that is why they misconstrued your message.

    I read your article. I agree with everything you said and we most likely have the same take on these subjects. I love the first picture but I hated the second one.

    The first one doesn’t really tell any fake messages if we use common sense that all of those are just analogies and metaphors.

    The second one however is full of misinformation that you would like to correct. the problem arises since people wouldn’t bother to read your content, so it would be predictable how most people would react.

    My opinionated solution to this is graphically include all your nuances or concerns in your second picture so even your opinions or hate regarding the topic is also expressed graphically even if they decided to crop your whole paragraphs of tldr.

  4. J.D. says:

    Would you expect someone to see a Dali painting of melting clocks, then set a clock out in the sun, expecting it to melt? Of course not. That’s because it’s art, not a physics lesson. Likewise, if someone were to mistake a work by Escher for a course on architecture, I’d be equally concerned. The fact is, if someone is so utterly indiscriminating that they believe that everything they see, read, or hear is a scientific fact, without any examination of the source whatsoever, isn’t that complete lack of conscientiousness on them? Even if all artwork were somehow forced to be scientifically correct, it’s still the burden of the viewer to properly understand the context and message which is being shown.

    Points to consider: If schools actually taught children the proper facts, would the meaning of this artwork be so misinterpreted? — In that way, perhaps it’s the lack of knowledge of this fact to begin with, rather than the artwork itself which is a problem. Further, if there’s a level of appropriate conscientiousness present, even if the individual isn’t aware of the scientific truth, would fallacious presentations hinder them from investigating the truth for themselves? Perhaps proper conscientiousness when it comes to the pursuit of knowledge and the evaluation of facts is also sorely lacking, and responsible for these grand misconceptions.

    Perhaps the mistaken notion that we use only 10% of our brains isn’t exactly a fallacy for such individuals? Even if that’s not the case, it does, far to often, feel that way.

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