Critique of a “Right Brain Traits” List

This link appeared on my Facebook feed, so I thought I’d save my vitriol for a blog post. 🙂 The following analysis comes from my understanding and interpretation of the processing styles and interaction of the left and right brain hemispheres as described in Iain McGilchrist’s seminal The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, plus various other sources.

1. You’re easily swept up by your imagination. Right-brained people are known to live inside their head.

Visual and emotional imagination is associated with the right brain, as are dreams. However, there are two ways in which visions can take place. The first is when visions and feelings arise spontaneously into consciousness. If you have  been searching for your car keys, for example, and given up, some time later an image may suddenly hit you showing you exactly where you left them, along with a feeling of certainty. A similar phenomenon happens when you have been experiencing “tip of the tongue” syndrome — when you cannot remember a word, or someone’s name, even though you know you know it. Some time later, the word suddenly pops into your head with a feeling of “Ohhhhh!” These are genuine right-brain phenomena. In both examples, the thing you were looking for was in the “big reality model” of the right brain, but systematic searching (a left-brain processing style) inhibited the right brain and narrowed your focus down to your left brain’s “list of usuals” (its simplified conceptual version of reality). This works fine if the car keys are in one of your “usual” places, or the word or name of the person you are trying to remember is a “usual” one — but if they were “usual”, you would not be in this predicament. The true location of the car keys, or the word, fell outside that narrow focus, thus it was not accessible to your left brain in that mode. By moving on to doing or thinking about something else, that focus is allowed to expand again and the right brain can pop the true location of the car keys, or the word, spontaneously into your conscious awareness for actioning by the left brain.

Intuition works similarly. Images and feelings can suddenly pop into your awareness when the left brain is engaged in some other task (and therefore not inhibiting the right brain) or when relaxing deeply (which turns off the left brain and lets the right brain’s signals step forward). So does creativity. For example, my best music composition takes place behind the scenes while I’m doing some other task. I can hear the music very quietly “writing itself” in the background of my conscious awareness (the right brain doing its thing without interference from the left).

But let’s go back to the assertion from the link: “You’re easily swept up by your imagination”. If it is the kind of spontaneous movies and feelings I have just described, that is the right brain being allowed to have its signals pass into consciousness. However, if you are actively fantasizing, meaning you are directing and changing the fantasy, this is the left brain subverting the right brain’s visual/emotional theatre capacity for its own ends. There are two reasons to do this. The first is analysis. I will sometimes run through past events in my head and change some elements to get an idea of how I could improve the outcome next time.  I am extremely careful these days to keep the elements I change within the realms of reason, i.e. things I could realistically change about my own behaviour to influence the result. It’s a simulation; a practice run. I am also careful to mark these possible future changes in behaviour as “maybe”s, i.e. “maybe that change will get a better outcome; I shall have to test it and see”, and ending the fantasy when that conclusion is reached (“I don’t know” and other self-honest appraisals are also valid end points for such fantasies).

The second reason fantasies are consciously controlled however is far more common: to let the left brain get its “hit” (of power/control). You will know this is taking place when you begin to introduce truly fantastical elements to the movie.  Maybe you replay some situation and give yourself unrealistic personality traits (setting someone straight super-confidently), or superpowers (fighting someone invincibly, being able to fly etc.). Maybe you imagine yourself as someone completely different, who possesses all the success concepts you desire. The theme of these kinds of fantasies will always be you “getting your way” somehow. That is classic left brain. It is ambitious, manipulative (literally “manipulative”, meaning “changing something using the hand” (e.g. tool use, its most visible strength)) and completely infallible as far as it is concerned (it has no concept of itself being wrong, and fantasies are its subversion of the right brain’s theatre faculty to create a reality where it cannot be challenged).

So here we have two very different interpretations of the phrase “swept up by your imagination”. If it is spontaneous, intuitive images and feelings arising unprompted into conscious awareness, it is the right brain’s genuine signals being heard. If it is consciously-directed fantasy it is the left brain using the right brain’s theatre for its own purposes, which may be beneficial if used for genuine analysis, or detrimental if used for egoic delusion.

Finally, let’s look at the following: “Right-brained people are known to live inside their head.” Relating this back to what I just said, we can see that “living inside one’s own head” is actually more commonly a left-brain subversion of the right brain’s theatre. The exception is flashes of intuition and inspiration, and of course dreaming (of the non-lucid variety — lucid dreaming is frequently subverted by left-brain “will to power” fantasies, once again).

But there’s more here. The right brain is inherently concerned with awareness of the body and, as a corollary of that, sensory input. It accepts reality “as-is” (as reported to it by the senses). That presentation of reality is then passed over to the left brain which creates its own representation of the reality using its own blocky, low-resolution concepts. It’s kind of like representing a beautiful church, with its infinite complexity and detail, in big clunky Lego blocks. The left brain does this because it can then pull apart the Lego blocks and move them around to create something more pleasing to it (in line with its ambitions). It does this primarily using words. Words are left-brain conceptual versions of little chunks it has cut off from the “whole” reality as reported by the right brain. Words are your Lego blocks. That’s why you talk to yourself when you’re working on a problem, even if the problem is something like, “This person has annoyed me”.

You’re moving the Lego blocks around to make a more pleasing representation of reality for the left hemisphere. So, in this sense, living inside one’s head is more indicative of left-brain concept juggling — moving the Lego blocks around to create a more favourable reality in line with its own ambition. On the contrary, living outside one’s head — connected to sensory input and body awareness — is the domain of the right brain. Meditation, particularly the Buddhist principle of equanimity, can be modelled as a return to right-brain awareness by reconnecting with the body and the environment, and observing and detaching from the thoughts — the “concept juggling” — of the left brain. Seeing the left brain’s almost constant manipulation of the reality model for what it is, and no longer being compelled by it.

2. If you come up with an artistic idea, you have to stop everything you’re doing and write it down.

Sudden artistic inspiration is a right-brain phenomenon. Compulsion for its execution (manipulation of reality) is more to do with left-brain ambition.

3. And you’re totally guilty of doodling all over your math notebooks.

Doodles tend to be extremely simplified versions of the things they are depicting. They are symbols, concepts — in other words, left-brain representations. In The Master and His Emissary there are photographs showing three drawings of a flower done by each test subject under the following conditions: left brain only, right brain only, both brains. (They achieved one-brain-only by anaesthetizing the other hemisphere.) The right-brain drawing is always highly detailed and realistic, even if the subject has no previous drawing experience. The “both brains” drawing is generally poorer than just the right brain on its own. The left-brain drawing is always a doodle.

4. You have some strange talents, like tying seemingly unrelated things together.

This is a genuine right-brain trait.

5. You love to read and write, but you don’t know the difference between a preposition and a conjunction.

Reading and writing is a collaborative effort by both hemispheres. The left hemisphere is more concerned with the referential aspects of language (what words mean; words-as-concepts; literal meaning of each word). The right brain is more concerned with the meaning and context  — the picture the words paint when taken together.

Regarding knowing what a preposition and conjunction are, if you can speak a language you will already know implicitly what they are and how to use them in speech. Not knowing the explicit meaning and rules of the labels “preposition” and “conjunction” is not a statement about hemispheres, but rather about intellectual laziness in not bothering to find something out.

6. And you’ve tried to learn at least three languages but struggled with memorizing grammar rules.

Learning grammar rules is done in two different ways. In learning your native language as a very young child, they are learned implicitly in a collaborative effort by both hemispheres, through noticing repeating word patterns spoken by others, and their apparent meaning, and tying them together to form implicit rules governing speech.

In learning a language formally later in life, it is done in a more sequential (left-brained) way, initially. Grammar rules are taught in an explicit form (left hemisphere) and are memorized. Learning a language is turned into a rote task of memorization. Except then you go to that foreign country and realize you can’t understand anybody despite having memorized all the rules and loads of words. It’s no secret that it generally takes about a year of immersion in a foreign language before you can speak it well. That’s because the explicit, memorized grammar rules have to be underwritten by a right-brain sensory experience to form an implicit understanding. In other words you go through a similar experience to the one you did as a child learning your original language. Having access to explicit grammar rules and vocabulary however speeds up the process manifold. Learning a new language is a collaborative effort between the two hemispheres.

7. You have an easier time writing a silly message on your bill than actually calculating tip.

Laziness posing as being a “right-brained person”. Everyone finds it easier to write garbage than do maths.

8. You need to have music on when doing work, even though it can make your mind wander.

Dissatisfaction with the current environment and compulsion to change it are more left-brain traits.

9. And you love everything about music, but playing it on rhythm and counting each beat perfectly can be really difficult for you.

Feeling and following rhythm is certainly a right-brain facet. Counting and converting rhythm to an explicit representation (a time signature) is a left hemisphere function (rhythm becoming a concept). Whenever you take something intuitive and turn it into rules, that indicates a passing of that “thing” from the right hemisphere to the left (for “unpacking”). After it’s unpacked, it’s supposed to be passed back to the right hemisphere for reintegration (so it can be used intuitively again). McGilchrist believes that, in the West, in many areas of life, “things” are getting stuck in the left hemisphere “unpacking” phase — hence the high levels of neurosis, constant internal verbal chatter and dissatisfaction endemic in the average Westerner.

10. You rely on visuals when learning new things.

That’s pretty right-brainy.

11. You’d rather write an essay than take a multiple-choice exam.

Okay, this woman’s on crack. An essay demands the full verbal and conceptual faculties of the left hemisphere.

12. You appreciate a well-crafted sentence more than anyone, but you also think as you talk and don’t always edit.

This sounds more like left-brain verbal diarrhoea.

13. You’re really brave when it comes to pursuing what you want, but your feelings are also easily hurt.

Ambitious “grasping” is a left-brain trait. Feelings being hurt is largely irrelevant to the topic — she’s just describing human universals to please the crowd.

14. You are meticulous when it comes to creating a piece of art, but your desk is covered with scattered papers.

That’s pretty right-brainy.

15. You get really excited about the tiniest of details related to your favorite series or film, but get easily bored in daily conversations with people.

Focus on details can be said to be the defining theme of the left brain. The left brain is your “zoom in, analyse and manipulate” tool. The right brain sees the whole. The left brain is also more cheerful, humorous (in feeling, not in execution as it struggles with context) and enthusiastic compared to the right brain’s more stoic view of the world.

16. You’re great at recognizing people’s faces but can’t remember names of new people to save your life.

Recognizing faces is indeed a right-brain characteristic. Failing to remember names is again a matter of laziness. To remember names, the left brain creates a conceptual representation of that person and attaches a label, the label being their name. This can be practised by simply noticing some distinguishing features of their face while repeating their name in your mind. If you can speak a language, you can remember words, and if you can remember words, you can remember names.

17. Fictional characters have shaped your personality more than real people.

This won’t have happened. The emotional basis of your personality (and we’re talking about the part not determined by genes) will mostly have come from your parents or other primary caregivers in your earliest years, absorbed via mirror neurons in the right hemisphere which specifically make copies of other people’s emotional responses in your brain. The left hemisphere’s mirror neurons on the other hand primarily make copies of directed actions, e.g. tool use.

18. You’ve questioned the whole notion of morality and think it’s more important to be kind than to be right.

To you, nothing is black and white.

Seeing the whole is a right-brain characteristic, as is compassion. Obsession with being right is a left-brain trait. So this one’s pretty good.

19. You live in your own world.

We’ve already covered this mostly in #1. However, there is something to add. Separateness is specifically a left-brain paradigm. The left brain receives the “whole” from the right brain, cuts a bit off, analyses it and turns it into a concept. The left brain’s representation of the world is made up of these separate concepts. The right brain just sees the whole. To the right brain, everything is connected.

Final Thoughts

Pop psychology articles like the one I’ve just analysed, and online personality tests, are written for a few reasons. The first is entertainment. These things are supposed to have an “Ooooh!” factor to draw people in. People generally are more interested in quirkiness, “odd facts” and soundbites than really getting to know something.

The second is flattery and apology: notice how the author uses her (mostly wrong) concept of being a “right-brained person” to excuse and put a positive spin on intellectual laziness, compulsive daydreaming, and other facets of an immature mind. It’s playing to the crowd. People want to feel special, and that their shortcomings are not their fault and are beyond their control. This is one of the major problems of assigning labels to yourself such as “right-brained person” — it makes you static. This kind of categorization and labelling is, ironically, specifically a left-brain function.

It seems that the dissemination of useful information is rarely featured on the priority lists of such articles. Given the amount of misinformation present in these articles — usually as a result of the author just repeating what they’ve already heard from some other wrong source, and also from injecting their own biases and “what they want it to mean” — the end result is a net lowering of the human collective intelligence. In my own take on the hemispheres, above, I have also engaged in simplification. After all, the hemispheres and their interaction is an extremely complex topic. I’ve also probably been not-quite-right in many of my interpretations. I am prepared to be wrong, though. Any corrections submitted will be seriously considered. I am only ever trying to be “less wrong”. 🙂

It was the following video which started me on my exploration of the brain hemispheres:

I also highly recommend his book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

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