Left-brain, Right-brain, and Other Pseudo-scientific Clichés

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This is one of those posts that emerges from the confluence in my head of conversations with several different people over the course of a few months. What I really want is to get the various people involved into the same room together and say ‘You know what you were talking about with me in January? Say it them to see what they come back with.’ But in the absence of that opportunity (and in the recognition that even if I did they’d all probably have moved on and would want to talk about something else) I’m going to have to use my own imagination instead to work out the connections and contradictions.

There were at least two conversations about left-brain versus right-brain thinking, one in the context of teaching and learning, the other a report of a speaker who had reinterpreted the dichotomy as one of focused attention versus peripheral awareness. There were also discussions of a study that contends that the concept of ‘learning styles’ has no evidential validity, and just functions as a self-fulfilling educational ideology. All these landed into a brain that was already brewing thoughts about how much of the claims made for the health benefits of singing are presented in ways that claim a scientific basis with very little reliable underpinning.

This isn’t going to be a post debunking those claims. I may yet write that one, but for today I’m more interested in whether the fact that these belief systems are what those who write about pseudoscience would refer to as ‘woo’ makes them damaging. The claims that the concepts are derived from actual structures in our brains are nonsense,* but do educational theories actually need a neurological basis in order to be useful? We have been teaching and learning for a good deal longer than we have had any detailed knowledge of our brains’ functioning, after all.

It strikes me that these ‘classifications’ of ways people think and interact with the world belong to the same tradition as astrology or personality tests. They are derived inductively from observations of human behaviour, and get organised into a systematic discourse as a means to help us navigate our relationships with others.

The big advantage they gives us is that they provide a structure to understand difference. Not everybody thinks or feels or acts in the same patterns as I do, and as an educator, a team member, or just a human being who belongs to a family, I will communicate and collaborate more effectively if I have some understanding of these differences. As an Aries, I am a natural leader, but I must be careful not to trample all over the sensibilities of a kind-hearted Aquarius. (Are Aquarius supposed to be kind-hearted? I could go and look it up I suppose but I can’t really work out if it matters if I’ve got this wrong…)

In educational settings, frameworks that draw our attention to different modes of relating to our material – whether that be the analytic/intuitive dichotomy of brain hemispheres, or the sensory modes of learning styles – requires a teacher to think more imaginatively about how they design their learning activities, whilst simultaneously giving a structure with which to do so. Everybody benefits from experiencing the content from different perspectives: pennies drop more easily when you think around something rather than hammering away at the same approach that half the group got stuck on last week.

The downside, though, is the danger of stereotyping, of ourselves or of each other. I’m a left-brainer, I don’t do emotion; I’m a kinaesthetic learner, I can’t learn from reading a book. Categories are by their nature reductive, and the way we use them can close down learning instead of opening it up.

This is possibly where the appeal to science as your justification is a problem. It is a claim to authority, to know people better than they know themselves. The distinction between analytical and intuitive thought is not based in our neurology, just in our observed behaviours. Having made that observation, it is useful for an educator to appeal to both modes of thinking. But stereotyping people as one type or the other discourages them from using their full range of faculties.

Having worked through this, I’m now intrigued at the possibility of using star signs as the basis for an educational theory. I suppose it is more arbitrary, in that it assigns you to your type by birth date, rather than by observed patterns of behaviour and response. But it has a well-developed typology of human character, and if its point was to help an educator plan for the full range of responses they are likely to encounter, then it could give an admirably systematic structure to approach this. And nobody, these days, would be in danger of mistaking it for science.

* The left-brain/right-brain concept is based in some specific studies that identified specialisation in function in particular areas, but extrapolates these findings into nonsense. The brain’s hemisphere’s work closely together, and the idea of hemispheric dominance – i.e. using these findings to explain personality types – is just made up.

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