10 Apr 2012

Debunking the Right/Left Brain Myth: What does this mean for standardized tests?

You’ve probably heard that left-brained people are logical, organized, and good at science and math, while right-brainers are creative, artsy, good at spacial reasoning and, perhaps, at interpreting the tone of a book. Maybe you’ve even used this distinction to describe yourself?

While there’s certainly no harm in using left/right brain terminology to illustrate the activities you enjoy, it’s important to take this distinction with a grain of salt. Why? Because the theory is not based in actual science. In other words: it’s bunk.

In an article for the Washington Post, University of Virginia psychology professor, Daniel Willingham discusses the parts of the brain involved in “learning a sequence,” typically considered a left-brain task. He writes,

In this brain imaging study some colleagues and I found that 14 brain areas contribute to the sequencing task we examined. “Sequential thought” is supposed to be a left brain function, but we observed five areas in the left hemisphere, five in the right, and four bilateral. (That is, the activity was in corresponding areas of both the left and right hemispheres.)

I say “sequencing” and that corresponds to 14 different brain areas! So thinking that we can identify an array of these tasks–logical thinking, language, math, and others–that all depend mostly on one hemisphere seems a little far-fetched. More to the point, we know it’s inaccurate.

So, different abilities are not controlled by distinct, hierarchically arranged sides of the brain. What does this mean for high school students preparing for college admissions tests? The SAT is split between sections that test reading, writing, and math. The ACT adds science to the mix. A motley crew of subjects, indeed! If you’re inclined toward the right/left brain theory, you might say: “Well, I’m right-brained. Maybe I can do OK on SAT verbal… but math just ain’t my thing!” Or, worse: “I’m right-brained. I’m a boss at art, but I suck at logic, analysis, and reasoning. The SAT just ain’t my thing!”

Left/Right brain distinctions dichotomize our abilities and act like destiny. They tell us that, because we’re good at one thing, we can’t possibly be good at it’s (alleged) inverse. Left/right brain distinctions downplay possible connections between different types of thought–the seeming relatedness between pattern-recognition, analysis, and intuitive interpretation. Recognizing such relationships opens the possibility for students to use inborn talents as a springboard for developing weaker areas.

Or maybe debunking the left/right brain myth just tells us that one’s gift for science has absolutely nothing to do with spatial reasoning or talent in art. You can be both intensely creative and intensely analytical. One does not prevent or undermine the other, so we get to nurture multiple, “contradictory” gifts.

Anyway, my point is: If you’re a high school student getting ready for the SAT/ACT, don’t let mythological notions about your dominant half-brain prevent you from trying for a good score in all sub-tests. Ditto that for different subjects in school.

These Key SAT Words are Expertly Identified by Sentia Tutors

motley: made up of different colors or parts
dichotomy: division into two mutually exclusive, opposed or contradictory groups
alleged: doubtful; suspect; supposed

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