There is a common belief that most people are either more “right-brained” or more “left-brained” while there are a few who are almost equally balanced. A strong left brain manifests itself through interest and competency in analytical subjects – science, mathematics, business and accounting, logic, manufacturing etc. whereas a person with a strong right brain is more into fine arts, performing arts, philosophy, spirituality, holistic concepts and other creative activities.
Based on my own experience, I think that this is a reasonable classification and it does not depend on race, age, gender or national origin. I have met people who have no passion or appreciation for paintings or other objects of art, but can talk to me for hours about numbers, be it some topic in theoretical physics or how to make money by investing in the stock market.
Similarly, there have been plenty of people in my life who simply do not like to even talk about financial numbers like tax returns or loan amortization or any technical subject but can get visibly excited in their admiration for a sculpture or a book or other items of creative output.
Among the famous people in history it is reasonable to assume that Rabindranath Tagore was a right brainer, Albert Einstein was a leftie while Leonardo da Vinci was probably more balanced.
It seems that even entire nations can be divided into groups: the Asians countries (Japan, in particular) are probably more likely to produce right-brained people and the people from Western countries are stronger in left-brained traits. On the other hand, people who are more balanced are likely to be found among Indians. They are known both for their strong mathematical skill as well as passion about literature, music etc.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have developed strong interest in both left and right-brained activities which allows me to see clearly the differences between these two groups of people. I do not know if this has anything to do with my Indian origin.
During my childhood, my interest focused on painting, writing, music and even spiritual thoughts prompted by religious celebrations of all kinds. However, I ended up studying physics mainly because I was told that smart students study physics.
My real interest in left-brained activities took off when I came to the USA for PhD study and had to manage the financial planning of my married life all by myself. My left brain reached its complete maturity when I joined Sony where for the first time I saw how the real world of manufacturing works and how money is made.
Now that I am retired I have gone back to the right-brained activities including painting, writing, music, spirituality etc. But I am acutely aware of the need for making an effective retirement plan with my finances and often spend lots of time in crunching numbers related to my savings, pensions, social security benefits etc.
Before writing this article, I did some research on the topic to see what scientific basis, if any, exists behind this classification. I was surprised and overwhelmed by the very complex analysis about the interaction of the two hemispheres of the brain in many of the scientific articles drawing some vague conclusions.
The most noteworthy was an interview with Dr. Kara Federmieire, a cognitive neuroscientist and a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. It is a comprehensive and analytical account basically concluding that the issue is much more complicated than a simple left brain/right brain classification.
A few of the some more recent studies seem to be in denial. For example, “one highly publicized paper, summarized at The Guardian, failed to find evidence that individuals tend to have stronger left- or right-sided brain networks. A new book by Stephen M. Kosslyn and G. Wayne Miller argues that the left/right brain distinction is largely bogus”.
I thought for some time about those comments and reached the following conclusion. There are two reasons for this apparent discrepancy between what seems to be an obvious classification scheme and scientific explanations.
First, I realised that these scientific data and conclusions have been collected by left-brained people. They are probably incapable of or opposed to drawing any conclusion based simply on intuition or experience because of their scientific training. It is similar to asking a group of scientists if there is any basis for healing by psychic power or faith.
More importantly, I believe that the terms “left brained” and “right brained” are misnomers. The scientific community has taken these descriptions literally and tried to find a correlation with the anatomical structure of left and right sides of our brain. Perhaps, we should use terms like “analytical” and “holistic” to designate the two groups and it is possible that there is indeed a complex interplay between the two halves of the brain in determining each of these characteristics.
Apart from being just an interesting observation this classification plays a key role in our personal lives. I believe that a man and a woman would be much more compatible with each other if they are both right or both left brained.
Otherwise, one half of a person’s passionate interests would remain unaddressed leading to frustrations, loneliness and misunderstanding. By the same logic, a person who is equally balanced between the two brains would be truly happy in a relationship if he/she meets a person who is similarly balanced.
Someone once told me (but I have not independently verified this) that only 7 per cent of the population is equally balanced between left and right brains. This suggests that it would be very difficult for such people to find suitable mates.
People who are brain-balanced face one other major disadvantage. I believe (based on my own personal experience) that they would never be able to excel in anything in spite of occasionally showing some flashes of their talent. The reason is that if they start devoting their energy into left-brained activities, the philosophical right brain would say at some point “what is the point of doing all these? Life is too short not to enjoy all the beauty this earth has to offer and not to seek answers to all the profound questions of life?”
On the other hand, if they start spending all their time in painting, writing, music and self-realisation, the left brain would urge them to find out how they can make some money by utilising these talents instead of just letting all of their creative output go to waste.
It is also interesting to note that available academic and professional choices are aligned with this brain classification. That is why the high school and college courses are divided into Science, Engineering and Humanities.
I have not heard about any curriculum offered in any college which combines physics with history or mechanical engineering with theology, for example unless the student wants to study some specific topic as an optional subject. A good grade in mathematics is not a prerequisite to qualify for a job as a dance instructor. However, there are some subjects which might be ideal for students who are balanced between the two brains.
One example is architecture. An architect can perfectly use strengths from both the right and left sides of his brain. Any building he designs has to have aesthetic appeal and functionality for day-today living enjoyment, but at the same time must be consistent with all the requirements of mechanical integrity and electrical connectivity from an engineering point of view.
Other subjects which fall on this middle ground are psychology and economics to a certain extent. In conclusion I believe that this classification into left and right-brained people is not only valid but that if you can determine whether you are a left-brained or right-brained it would be helpful in selecting your academic path, profession and even life partner.
The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.