“Few people realize what an astonishing achievement it is to be able to see at all. The main contribution of the new field of artificial intelligence has been not so much to solve these problems of information handling as to show what tremendously difficult problems they are. When one reflects on the number of computations that must have to be carried out before one can recognize even such an everyday scene as another person crossing the street, one is left with a feeling of amazement that such an extraordinary series of detailed operations can be accomplished so effortlessly in such a short space of time.”
F. H. C. Crick, “Thinking about the Brain,” in The Brain, San Francisco: A Scientific American Book, W. H. Freeman, 1979, p. 130.
Your Brain: The Right and Left of It
Source: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards
How does the human brain work? That remains the most baffling and elusive of all questions having to do with human understanding. Despite centuries of study and thought and the accelerating rate of knowledge in recent years, the brain still engenders awe and wonder at its marvelous capabilities—many of which we simply take for granted.
Scientists have targeted visual perception in particular with highly precise studies, and yet vast mysteries still exist. The most ordinary activities are awe-inspiring. For example, in a recent contest, people were shown a photograph of six mothers and their six children, arranged randomly in a group. Contestants, strangers to the photographed group, were asked to link the six mother-and-child pairs. Forty people responded, and each had paired all of the mothers and children correctly.
To think of the complexity of that task is to make one’s head spin. Our faces are more alike than unlike: two eyes, a nose, a mouth, hair, and two ears, all more or less the same size and in the same places on our heads. Telling two people apart requires fine discriminations beyond the capability of nearly all computers, as I mentioned in the Introduction. In this contest, participants had to distinguish each adult from all the others and estimate, using even finer discriminations, which child’s features/head-shape/expression best fitted with which adult. The fact that people can accomplish this astounding feat and not realize how astounding it is forms, I think, a measure of our underestimation of our visual abilities.
Another extraordinary activity is drawing. As far as we know, of all the creatures on this planet, human beings are the only ones who draw images of things and persons in their environment. Monkeys and elephants have been persuaded to paint and draw and their artworks have been exhibited and sold. And, indeed, these works do seem to have expressive content, but they are never realistic images of the animals’ perceptions. Animals do not do still-life, landscape, or portrait drawing. so unless there is some monkey that we don’t know about out there in the forest drawing pictures of other monkeys, we can assume that drawing perceived images is an activity confined to human beings and made possible by our human brain.
Both sides of your brain
Seen from above, the human brain resembles the halves of a walnut—two similar appearing, convoluted, rounded halves connected at the center (Figure 3-1). The two halves are called the “left hemisphere” and the “right hemisphere.”
The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere controls the left side. If you suffer a stroke or accidental brain damage to the left half of your brain, for example, the right half of your body will be most seriously affected and vice versa. As part of this crossing over of the nerve pathways, the left hand is controlled by the right hemisphere; the right hand, by the left hemisphere, as shown in Figure 3-2.
The double brain
With the exception of human beings and possibly songbirds, the greater apes, and certain other mammals, the cerebral hemispheres (the two halves of the brain) of Earth’s creatures are essentially alike, or symmetrical, both in appearance and in function. Human cerebral hemispheres, and those of the exceptions noted above, develop asymmetrically in terms of function. The most noticeable outward effect of the asymmetry of the human brain is handedness, which seems to be unique to human beings and possibly chimpanzees.
For the past two hundred years or so, scientists have known that language and language-related capabilities are mainly located in the left hemispheres of the majority of individuals— approximately 98 percent of right-handers and about two-thirds of left-handers. Knowledge that the left half of the brain is specialized for language functions was largely derived from observations of the effects of brain injuries. It was apparent, for example, that an injury to the left side of the brain was more likely to cause a loss of speech capability than an injury of equal severity to the right side.
Because speech and language are such vitally important human capabilities, nineteenth-century scientists named the left hemisphere the “dominant,” “leading,” or “major” hemisphere. scientists named the right brain the “subordinate” or “minor” hemisphere. The general view, which prevailed until fairly recently, was that the right half of the brain was less advanced, less evolved than the left half—a mute twin with lower-level capabilities, directed and carried along by the verbal left hemisphere. Even as late as 1961, neuroscientist J. Z. Young could still wonder whether the right hemisphere might be merely a “vestige,” though he allowed that he would rather keep than lose his. [Quoted from The Psychology of Left and Right, M. Corbalis and Ivan Beale, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1976, p. 101.]
A long-time focus of neuroscientific study has been the functions, unknown until fairly recently, of a thick nerve cable composed of millions of fibers that cross-connect the two cerebral hemispheres. This connecting cable, the corpus callosum, is shown in the diagrammatic drawing of half of a human brain, Figure 3-3. Because of its large size, tremendous number of nerve fibers, and strategic location as a connector of the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum gave all the appearances of being an important structure. Yet enigmatically, available evidence indicated that the corpus callosum could be completely severed without observable significant effect. Through a series of animal studies during the 1950s, conducted mainly at the California Institute of Technology by Roger W. Sperry and his students, Ronald Myers, Colwyn Trevarthen, and others, it was established that a main function of the corpus callosum was to provide communication between the two hemispheres and to allow transmission of memory and learning. Furthermore, it was determined that if the connecting cable was severed the two brain halves continued to function independently, thus explaining in part the apparent lack of effect on behavior and functioning.
Then during the 1960s, extension of similar studies to human neurosurgical patients provided further information on the function of the corpus callosum and caused scientists to postulate a revised view of the relative capabilities of the halves of the human brain: that both hemispheres are involved in higher cognitive functioning, with each half of the brain specialized in complementary fashion for different modes of thinking, both highly complex.
As journalist Maya Pines stated in her 1982 book, The Brain Changers, “All roads lead to Dr. Roger Sperry, a California Institute of Technology psychobiology professor who has the gift of making—or provoking—important discoveries. “
“The main theme to emerge .. . is that there appear to be two modes of thinking, verbal and nonverbal, represented rather separately in left and right hemispheres, respectively, and that our educational system, as well as science in general, tends to neglect the nonverbal form of intellect. What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere.”
— Roger W. Sperry
“Lateral Specialization of Cerebral Function in the Surgically Separated Hemispheres,” 1973
“The data indicate that the mute, minor hemisphere is specialized for Gestalt perception, being primarily a synthesist in dealing with information input. The speaking, major hemisphere, in contrast, seems to operate in a more logical, analytic, computer-like fashion. Its language is inadequate for the rapid complex syntheses achieved by the minor hemisphere.”
—Jerre Levy and R. W. Sperry 1968
Because this changed perception of the brain has important implications for education in general and for learning to draw in particular, I’ll briefly describe some of the research often referred to as the “split-brain” studies. The research was mainly carried out at Cal Tech by Sperry and his students Michael Gazzaniga, Jerre Levy, Colwyn Trevarthen, Robert Nebes, and others.
The investigation centered on a small group of individuals who came to be known as the commissurotomy, or “split-brain,” patients. They are persons who had been greatly disabled by epileptic seizures that involved both hemispheres. As a last-resort measure, after all other remedies had failed, the incapacitating spread of seizures between the two hemispheres was controlled by means of an operation, performed by Phillip Vogel and Joseph Bogen, that severed the corpus callosum and the related commissures, or cross-connections, thus isolating one hemisphere from the other. The operation yielded the hoped-for result: The patients’ seizures were controlled and they regained health. In spite of the radical nature of the surgery, the patients’ outward appearance, manner, and coordination were little affected; and to casual observation their ordinary daily behavior seemed little changed.
The Cal Tech group subsequently worked with these patients in a series of ingenious and subtle tests that revealed the separated functions of the two hemispheres. The tests provided surprising new evidence that each hemisphere, in a sense, perceives its own reality—or perhaps better stated, perceives reality in its own way. The verbal half of the brain—the left half—dominates most of the time in individuals with intact brains as well as in the split-brain patients. Using ingenious procedures, however, the Cal Tech group tested the patients’ separated right hemispheres and found evidence that the right, nonspeaking half of the brain also experiences, responds with feelings, and processes information on its own. In our own brains, with intact corpus callosa, communication between the hemispheres melds or reconciles the two perceptions, thus preserving our sense of being one person, a unified being.
In addition to studying the right/left separation of inner mental experience created by the surgical procedure, the scientists examined the different ways in which the two hemispheres process information. Evidence accumulated showing that the mode of the left hemisphere is verbal and analytic, while that of the right is nonverbal and global. New evidence found by Jerre Levy in her doctoral studies showed that the mode of processing used by the right brain is rapid, complex, whole-pattern, spatial, and perceptual—processing that is not only different from but comparable in complexity to the left brain’s verbal, analytic mode. Additionally, Levy found indications that the two modes of processing tend to interfere with each other, preventing maximal performance; and she suggested that this may be a rationale for the evolutionary development of asymmetry in the human brain—as a means of keeping the two different modes of processing in two different hemispheres.
Based on the evidence of the split-brain studies, the view came gradually that both hemispheres use high human-level cognitive modes which, though different, involve thinking, reasoning, and complex mental functioning. Over the past decade, since the first statement in 1968 by Levy and Sperry, scientists have found extensive supporting evidence for this view, not only in brain-injured patients but also in individuals with normal, intact brains.
A few examples of the specially designed tests devised for use with the split-brain patients might illustrate the separate reality perceived by each hemisphere and the special modes of processing employed. In one test, two different pictures were flashed for an instant on a screen, with a split-brain patient’s eyes fixed on a midpoint so that scanning both images was prevented. Each hemisphere, then, received different pictures. A picture of a spoon on the left side of the screen went to the right brain; a picture of a knife on the right side of the screen went to the verbal left brain, as in Figure 3-4. When questioned, the patient gave different responses. If asked to name what had been flashed on the screen, the confidently articulate left hemisphere caused the patient to say, “knife.” Then the patient was asked to reach behind a curtain with his left hand (right hemisphere) and pick out what had been flashed on the screen. The patient then picked out a spoon from a group of objects that included a spoon and a knife. If the experimenter asked the patient to identify what he held in his hand behind the curtain, the patient might look confused for a moment and then say, “A knife.” The right hemisphere, knowing that the answer was wrong but not having sufficient words to correct the articulate left hemisphere, continued the dialogue by causing the patient to mutely shake his head. At that, the verbal left hemisphere wondered aloud, “Why am I shaking my head?”
In another test that demonstrated the right brain to be better at spatial problems, a male patient was given several wooden shapes to arrange to match a certain design. His attempts with his right hand (left hemisphere) failed again and again. His left hand kept trying to help. The right hand would knock the left hand away; and finally, the man had to sit on his left hand to keep it away from the puzzle. When the scientists finally suggested that he use both hands, the spatially “smart” left hand had to shove the spatially “dumb” right hand away to keep it from interfering.
As a result of these extraordinary findings over the past fifteen years, we now know that despite our normal feeling that we are one person—a single being—our brains are double, each half with its own way of knowing, its own way of perceiving external reality. In a manner of speaking, each of us has two minds, two consciousnesses, mediated and integrated by the connecting cable of nerve fibers between the hemispheres.
We have learned that the two hemispheres can work together in a number of ways. Sometimes they cooperate with each half contributing its special abilities and taking on the particular part of the task that is suited to its mode of information processing. At other times, the hemispheres can work singly, with one mode more or less “leading,” the other more or less “following.” And it seems that the hemispheres may also conflict, one half attempting to do what the other half “knows” it can do better. Furthermore, it may be that each hemisphere has a way of keeping knowledge from the other hemisphere. It may be, as the saying goes, that the right hand truly does not know what the left hand is doing.
Nasrudin was sitting with a friend as dusk fell. “Light a candle,” the man said, “because it is dark now. There is one just by your left side.” “How can I tell my right from my left in the dark, you fool?” asked the Mulla.
— Indries Shah
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin
Parallel Ways of Knowing
—J. E. Bogen
“Some Educational Aspects of Hemisphere Specialization” in UCLA Educator, 1972
The Duality of Yin and Yang
|left side||right side|
|right brain||left brain|
— I Ching or Book of Changes, a Chinese Taoist work
The double reality of split-brain patients
But what, you might ask, does all this have to do with learning how to draw? Research on brain-hemisphere aspects of visual perception indicates that ability to draw may depend on whether you can access at conscious level the “minor,” or subdominant, R-mode. How does this help a person to draw? It appears that the right brain perceives—processes visual information—in a mode suitable for drawing, and that the left-brain mode of functioning may be inappropriate for complex realistic drawing of perceived forms.
In hindsight, we realize that human beings must have had some sense of the differences between the halves of the brain. Languages worldwide contain numerous words and phrases suggesting that the left side of a person has different characteristics from the right side. These terms indicate not just differences in location but differences in fundamental traits or qualities. For example, if we want to compare unlike ideas, we say, “On the one hand … on the other hand…” “A left-handed compliment,” meaning a sly dig, indicates the differing qualities we assign to left and right.
Keep in mind, however, that these phrases generally speak of hands, but because of the crossover connections of hands and hemispheres, the terms can be inferred also to mean the hemispheres that control the hands. Therefore, the examples of familiar terms in the next section refer specifically to the left and right hands but in reality also refer inferentially to the opposite brain halves—the left hand controlled by the right hemisphere, the right hand by the left hemisphere.
The bias of language and customs
Words and phrases concerning concepts of left and right permeate our language and thinking. The right hand (meaning also the left hemisphere) is strongly connected with what is good, just, moral, and proper. The left hand (therefore the right hemisphere) is strongly linked with concepts of anarchy and feelings that are out of conscious control—somehow bad, immoral, and dangerous.
Until very recently, the ancient bias against the left hand/ right hemisphere sometimes even led parents and teachers of left-handed children to try to force the children to use their right hands for writing, eating, and so on—a practice that often caused problems lasting into adulthood.
Throughout human history, terms with connotations of good for the right hand/left hemisphere and connotations of bad for the left hand/right hemisphere appear in most languages around the world. The Latin word for left is sinister, meaning “bad,” “ominous,” “treacherous.” The Latin word for right is dexter, from which comes our word “dexterity,” meaning “skill” or “adroitness.”
The French word for left—remember that the left hand is connected to the right hemisphere—is gauche, meaning “awkward,” from which comes our word “gawky.” The French word for right is droit, meaning “good,” “just,” or “proper.”
In English, left comes from the Anglo-Saxon lyft, meaning “weak” or “worthless.” The left hand of most right-handed people is in fact weaker than the right, but the original word also implied lack of moral strength. The derogatory meaning of left may reflect a prejudice of the right-handed majority against a minority of people who were different, that is, left-handed. Reinforcing this bias, the Anglo-Saxon word for right, reht (or riht), meant “straight” or “just.” From reht and its Latin cognate rectus we derived our words “correct” and “rectitude.”
These ideas are also reflected in our political vocabulary. The political right, for instance, admires national power, is conservative, and resists change. The political left, conversely, admires individual autonomy and promotes change, even radical change. At their extremes, the political right is fascist, the political left is anarchist.
In the context of cultural customs, the place of honor at a formal dinner is on the host’s right-hand side. The groom stands on the right in the marriage ceremony, the bride on the left—a non-verbal message of the relative status of the two participants. We shake hands with our right hands; it seems somehow wrong to shake hands with our left hands.
Under “left-handed,” the dictionary lists as synonyms “clumsy,” “awkward,” “insincere,” “malicious.” Synonyms for “right-handed,” however, are “correct,” “indispensable,” and “reliable.” Now, it’s important to remember that these terms were all made up, when languages began, by some persons’ left hemispheres—the left brain calling the right bad names! And the right brain—labeled, pinpointed, and buttonholed—was without a language of its own to defend itself.
Two ways of knowing
Along with the opposite connotations of left and right in our language, concepts of the duality, or two-sidedness, of human nature and thought have been postulated by philosophers, teachers, and scientists from many different times and cultures. The key idea is that there are two parallel “ways of knowing.”
You probably are familiar with these ideas. As with the left/right terms, they are embedded in our languages and cultures. The main divisions are, for example, between thinking and feeling, intellect and intuition, objective analysis and subjective insight. Political writers say that people generally analyze the good and bad points of an issue and then vote on their “gut” feelings. The history of science is replete with anecdotes about researchers who try repeatedly to figure out a problem and then have a dream in which the answer presents itself as a metaphor intuitively comprehended by the scientist. The statement by Henri Poincare is a vivid example of the process.
In another context, people occasionally say about someone, “The words sound okay, but something tells me not to trust him (or her).” Or “I can’t tell you in words exactly what it is, but there is something about that person that I like (or dislike).” These statements are intuitive observations that both sides of the brain are at work, processing the same information in two different ways.
Dr. J. William Bergquist, a mathematician and specialist in the computer language known as APL, proposed in a paper given at Snow-mass, Colorado, in 1977 that we can look forward to computers that combine digital and analog functions in one machine. Dr. Bergquist dubbed his machine “The Bifurcated Computer.” He stated that such a computer would function similarly to the two halves of the human brain.
“The left hemisphere analyzes over time, whereas the right hemisphere synthesizes over space.”
-Jerre Levy “Psychobiological Implications of Bilateral Asymmetry,” 1974
“Every creative act involves … a new innocence of perception, liberated from the cataract of accepted belief.”
— Arthur Koestler The Sleepwalkers, 1959
The nineteenth-century mathematician Henri Poincare described a sudden intuition that gave him the solution to a difficult problem:
“One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination.” [That strange phenomenon provided the intuition that solved the troublesome problem. Poincare continued,] “It seems, in such cases, that one is present at his own unconscious work, made partially perceptible to the overexcited consciousness, yet without having changed its nature. Then we vaguely comprehend what distinguishes the two mechanisms or, if you wish, the working methods of the two egos.”
“Approaching forty, I had a singular dream in which I almost grasped the meaning and understood the nature of what it is that wastes in wasted time.”
— Cyril Connolly
The Unquiet Grave: A Word Cycle by Palinuris, 1945
Many creative people seem to have intuitive awareness of the separate-sided brain. For example, Rudyard Kipling wrote the following poem, entitled “The TwoSided Man,” more than fifty years ago.
Much I owe to the lands that grew-More to the Lives that fed-But most to the Allah Who gave me Two Separate sides to my head.
Much I reflect on the Good and the True In the faiths beneath the sun But most upon Allah Who gave me Two Sides to my head, not one.
I would go without shirt or shoe, Friend, tobacco or bread, Sooner than lose for a minute the two Separate sides of my head!
— Rudyard Kipling
“To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages.”
— Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception
Some famous individuals usually classified as left-handers:
Lewis Carroll King
George VI of Britain
W. C. Fields
Billy the Kid
Harry S. Truman
Pharoah Rameses II
Mirror writing reverses the shape of every letter and is written from right to left—that is, backwards. Only when held up to a mirror does it become legible for most readers:
The most famous mirror-writer in history is the Italian artist, inventor, and left-hander Leonardo da Vinci. Another is Lewis Carroll, left-handed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, whose mirror-written poem is shown above.
Most right-handers find mirror writing difficult, but it is quite easy for many left-handers.
Try writing your signature in mirror writing.
Former United States Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, a changed left-hander, had difficulty reading prepared speeches because of a tendency to read backward from right to left. The cause of this difficulty may have been his father’s unrelenting effort to change his son’s left-handedness.
“Around the family dinner table, the elder Mr. Rockefeller would put a rubber band around his son’s left wrist, tie a long string on it and jerk the string whenever Nelson started to eat with his left hand, the one he naturally favored.”
— Quoted in The LeftHanders ‘ Handbook by J. Bliss and J. Morella,
Eventually, young Nelson capitulated and achieved a rather awkward ambidextrous compromise, but he suffered the consequences of his father’s rigidity throughout his lifetime.
The two modes of information processing
Inside each of our skulls, therefore, we have a double brain with two ways of knowing. The dualities and differing characteristics of the two halves of the brain and body, intuitively expressed in our language, have a real basis in the physiology of the human brain. Because the connecting fibers are intact in normal brains, we rarely experience at a conscious level conflicts revealed by the tests on split-brain patients.
Nevertheless, as each of our hemispheres gathers in the same sensory information, each half of our brains may handle the information in different ways: The task may be divided between the hemispheres, each handling the part suited to its style. Or one hemisphere, often the dominant left, will “take over” and inhibit the other half. The left hemisphere analyzes, abstracts, counts, marks time, plans step-by-step procedures, verbalizes, and makes rational statements based on logic. For example, “Given numbers a, b, and c—we can say that if a is greater than b, and b is greater than c, then a is necessarily greater than c.” This statement illustrates the left-hemisphere mode: the analytic, verbal, figuring-out, sequential, symbolic, linear, objective mode.
On the other hand, we have a second way of knowing: the right-hemisphere mode. We “see” things in this mode that may be imaginary—existing only in the mind’s eye. In the example given just above, did you perhaps visualize the “a, b, c” relationship? In visual mode, we see how things exist in space and how the parts go together to make up the whole. Using the right hemisphere, we understand metaphors, we dream, we create new combinations of ideas. When something is too complex to describe, we can make gestures that communicate. Psychologist David Galin has a favorite example: try to describe a spiral staircase without making a spiral gesture. And using the right-hemisphere mode, we are able to draw pictures of our perceptions.
My students report that learning to draw makes them feel more “artistic” and therefore more creative. One definition of a creative person is someone who can process in new ways information directly at hand—the ordinary sensory data available to all of us. A writer uses words, a musician notes, an artist visual perceptions, and all need some knowledge of the techniques of their crafts. But a creative individual intuitively sees possibilities for transforming ordinary data into a new creation, transcendent over the mere raw materials.
Time and again, creative individuals have recognized the differences between the two processes of gathering data and transforming those data creatively. Neuroscience is now illuminating that dual process. I propose that getting to know both sides of your brain is an important step in liberating your creative potential.
The Ah-ha! response
In the right-hemisphere mode of information processing, we use intuition and have leaps of insight—moments when “everything seems to fall into place” without figuring things out in a logical order. When this occurs, people often spontaneously exclaim, “I’ve got it” or “Ah, yes, now I see the picture.” The classic example of this kind of exclamation is the exultant cry, “Eureka!” (I have found it!) attributed to Archimedes. According to the story, Archimedes experienced a flash of insight while bathing that enabled him to use the weight of displaced water to determine whether a certain crown was pure gold or alloyed with silver.
This, then, is the right-hemisphere mode: the intuitive, subjective, relational, holistic, time-free mode. This is also the disdained, weak, left-handed mode that in our culture has been generally ignored. For example, most of our educational system has been designed to cultivate the verbal, rational, on-time left hemisphere, while half of the brain of every student is virtually neglected.
Half a brain is better than none: A whole brain would be better
With their sequenced verbal and numerical classes, the schools you and I attended were not equipped to teach the right-hemisphere mode. The right hemisphere is not, after all, under very good verbal control. You can’t reason with it. You can’t get it to make logical propositions such as “This is good and that is bad, for a, b, and c reasons.” It is metaphorically left-handed, with all the ancient connotations of that characteristic. The right hemisphere is not good at sequencing—doing the first thing first, taking the next step, then the next. It may start anywhere, or take everything at once. Furthermore, the right hemisphere hasn’t a good sense of time and doesn’t seem to comprehend what is meant by the term “wasting time,” as does the good, sensible left hemisphere. The right brain is not good at categorizing and naming. It seems to regard the thing as-it-is, at the present moment of the present; seeing things for what they simply are, in all of their awesome, fascinating complexity. It is not good at analyzing and abstracting salient characteristics.
Today, educators are increasingly concerned with the importance of intuitive and creative thought. Nevertheless, school systems in general are still structured in the left-hemisphere mode. Teaching is sequenced: Students progress through grades one, two, three, etc., in a linear direction. The main subjects learners study are verbal and numerical: reading, writing, arithmetic. Nowadays, however, seats often are set circles rather than in rows. Time schedules are more flexible. But learners still converge on “correct” answers to often-ambiguous questions. Teachers still give out grades that often are tied to the “bell curve,” which guarantees that one-third of every group will be judged “below average,” regardless of achievement. And everyone senses that something is amiss.
The right brain—the dreamer, the artificer, and the artist—is lost in our school system and goes largely untaught. We might find a few art classes, a few shop classes, something called “creative writing,” and perhaps courses in music; but it’s unlikely that we would find courses in imagination, in visualization, in perceptual or spatial skills, in creativity as a separate subject, in intuition, in inventiveness. Yet educators value these skills and have apparently hoped that students would develop imagination, perception, and intuition as natural consequences of training in verbal, analytic skills.
Fortunately, such development often does occur almost in spite of the school system—a tribute to the survival capacity of creative abilities. But the emphasis of our culture is so strongly slanted toward rewarding left-brain skills that we are surely losing a very large proportion of the potential ability of the other halves of our children’s brains. Scientist Jerre Levy has said— only partly humorously—that American scientific training through graduate school may entirely destroy the right hemisphere. We certainly are aware of the effects of inadequate training in verbal, computational skills. The verbal left hemisphere never seems to recover fully, and the effects may handicap students for life. What happens, then, to the right hemisphere that is hardly trained at all?
Perhaps now that neuroscientists have provided a conceptual base for right-brain training, we can begin to build a school system that will teach the whole brain. Such a system will surely include training in drawing skills—an efficient, effective way to teach thinking strategies suited to the right brain.
Handedness, left or right
Students ask many questions about left- and right-handedness. This is a good place to address the subject, before we begin instruction in the basic skills of drawing. I will attempt to clarify only a few points, because the extensive research on handedness is difficult and complicated.
First, classifying people as strictly left-handed or righthanded is not quite accurate. People range from being completely left-handed or completely right-handed to being completely ambidextrous—that is, able to do many things with either hand, without a decided preference. Most of us fall somewhere on a continuum, with about 90 percent of humans preferring, more or less strongly, the right hand, and 10 percent preferring the left.
The percentage of individuals with left-hand preference for handwriting seems to be rising, from about 2 percent in 1932 to about 11 percent in the 1980s. The main reason for this rise is probably that teachers and parents have learned to tolerate left-handed writing and no longer force children to use the right hand. This relatively new tolerance is fortunate, because forcible change can cause a child to have serious problems, such as stuttering, right/left directional confusion, and difficulty in learning to read.
A useful way to regard handedness is to recognize that hand preference is the most visible outward sign of how an individual’s brain is organized. There are other outward signs: eyedness (everyone has a dominant eye, used in sighting along an edge, for example) and footedness (the foot used to step off a curb or to start a dance step). The key reason for not forcing a child to use the nonpreferred hand is that brain organization is probably genetically determined, and forcing a change works against this natural organization. Natural preference is so strong that past efforts to change left-handers often resulted in ambidexterity: children capitulated to pressure (in the old days, even punishment) and learned to use the right hand for writing but continued to use the left for everything else.
Moreover, there is no acceptable reason for teachers or parents to force a change. Reasons proffered run from “Writing with the left hand looks so uncomfortable,” to “The world is set up for right-handers and my left-handed child would be at a disadvantage.” These are not good reasons, and I believe they often mask an inherent prejudice against left-handedness—a prejudice now rapidly disappearing, I’m happy to report.
Putting prejudice aside, there are important differences between left-handers and right-handers. Left-handers are generally less lateralized than right-handers. Lateralization means the degree to which specific functions are carried out almost exclusively by one hemisphere. For example, left-handers more frequently process language in both hemispheres and process spatial information in both hemispheres than do right-handers. Specifically, language is mediated in the left hemisphere in 90 percent of right-handers and 70 percent of left-handers. Of the remaining 10 percent of right-handers, about 2 percent have language located in the right brain, and about 8 percent mediate language in both hemispheres. Of the remaining 30 percent of left-handers, about 15 percent have language located in the right brain, and about 15 percent mediate language in both hemispheres. Note that individuals with right-hemisphere language location—termed right-hemisphere dominance, since language dominates—often write in the “hooked” position that seems to cause teachers so much dismay. Scientist Jerre Levy has proposed that hand position in writing is another outward sign of brain organization.
Do these differences matter? Individuals vary so much that generalizations are risky. Nevertheless, experts agree in general that a mixture of functions in both hemispheres (that is, a lesser degree of lateralization) creates the potential for conflict or interference. It is true that left-handers statistically are more prone to stutter and to experience the reading difficulty called dyslexia. However, other experts suggest that bilateral distribution of functions may produce superior mental abilities. Left-handers excel in mathematics, music, and chess. And the history of art certainly gives evidence of an advantage for left-handedness: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael were all left-handed.
A comparison of left-mode and right-mode characteristics
|Verbal||Using words to name, describe, define.||Nonverbal||Using non-verbal cognition to process perceptions.|
|Analytic||Figuring things out step-by-step and part- by-part.||Synthetic||Putting things together to form wholes.|
|Symbolic||Using a symbol to stand for something.||Actual, real||Relating to things as they are, at the present moment.|
|Abstract||Taking out a small bit of information and using it to represent the whole thing.||Analogic||Seeing likenesses among things; understanding metaphoric relationships.|
|Temporal||Keeping track of time, sequencing one thing after another: Doing first things first, second things second, etc.||Nontemporal||Without a sense of time.|
|Rational||Drawing conclusions based on reason and facts.||Nonrational||Not requiring a basis of reason or facts; willingness to suspend judgment.|
|Digital||Using numbers as in counting.||Spatial||Seeing where things are in relation to other things and how parts go together to form a whole.|
|Logical||Drawing conclusions based on logic: one thing following another in logical order— for example, a mathematical theorem or a well-stated argument.||Intuitive||Making leaps of insight, often based on incomplete patterns, hunches, feelings, or visual images.|
|Linear||Thinking in terms of linked ideas, one thought directly following another, often leading to a convergent conclusion.||Holistic||(meaning “wholistic”) Seeing whole things all at once; perceiving the overall patterns and structures, often leading to divergent conclusions.|
Sigmund Freud, Hermann von Helmholtz, and the German poet Schiller were afflicted with right/left confusion. Freud wrote to a friend:
“I do not know whether it is obvious to other people which is their own or other’s right or left. In my case, I had to think which was my right; no organic feeling told me. To make sure which was my right hand I used quickly to make a few writing movements.”
— Sigmund Freud
The Origins of Psychoanalysis
A less august personage had the same problem:
Pooh looked at his two paws. He knew that one of them was the right, and he knew that when you had decided which one of them was the right, that the other one was the left, but he never could remember how to begin. “Well,” he said slowly …
— A. A. Milne
The House at Pooh Corner
Psychologist Charles T. Tart, discussing alternate states of consciousness, has said, “Many meditative disciplines take the view that… one possesses (or can develop) an Observer that is highly objective with respect to the ordinary personality. Because it is an Observer that is essentially pure attention/awareness, it has no characteristics of its own.” Professor Tart goes on to say that some persons who feel that they have a fairly well-developed Observer “feel that this Observer can make essentially continuous observations not only within a particular d-SoC (discrete state of consciousness) but also during the transition between two or more discrete states.”
— “Putting the Pieces Together,” 1977
And now if e’er by chance I put My fingers into glue Or madly squeeze a right-hand foot Into a left-hand shoe. . . .
— Lewis Carroll
Upon the Lonely Moor, 1856
Handedness and drawing
Does left-handedness, then, improve a person’s ability to gain access to right-hemisphere functions such as drawing? From my observations as a teacher, I can’t say that I have noticed much difference in ease of learning to draw between left- and righthanders. Drawing came easily to me, for example, and I am extremely right-handed—though, like many people, I have some right/left confusion, perhaps indicating bilateral functions. (A person with right/left confusion is one who says “Turn left,” while pointing right.) But there is a point to be made here. The process of learning to draw creates quite a lot of mental conflict. It’s possible that left-handers are more used to that kind of conflict and are therefore better able to cope with the discomfort it creates than are fully lateralized right-handers. Clearly, much research is needed in this area.
Some art teachers recommend that right-handers shift the pencil to the left hand, presumably to have more direct access to R-mode. I do not agree. The problems with seeing that prevent individuals from being able to draw do not disappear simply by changing hands; the drawing is just more awkward. Awkwardness, I regret to say, is viewed by some art teachers as being more creative or more interesting. I think this attitude does a disservice to the student and is demeaning to art itself. We do not view awkward language, for instance, or awkward science as being more creative and somehow better.
A small percentage of students do discover by trying to draw with the left hand that they actually draw more proficiently that way. On questioning, however, it almost always comes to light that the student has some ambidexterity or was a left-hander who had been pressured to change. It would not even occur to a true righthander like myself (or to a true left-hander) to draw with the less-used hand. But on the chance that a few of you may discover some previously hidden ambidexterity, I encourage you to try both hands at drawing, then settle on whichever hand feels the most comfortable.
In the chapters to follow, I will address the instructions to right-handers and thus avoid tedious repetition of instructions specifically for left-handers, with no intention of the “handism” that left-handers know so well.
Setting up the conditions for the L->R shift
The exercises in the next chapter are specifically designed to cause a (hypothesized) mental shift from L-mode to R-mode. The basic assumption of the exercises is that the nature of the task can influence which mode will “take up” the job while inhibiting the other hemisphere. But the question is what factors determine which mode will predominate?
Through studies with animals, split-brain patients, and individuals with intact brains, scientists believe that the control question may be decided mainly in two ways. One way is speed: Which hemisphere gets to the job the quickest? A second way is motivation: Which hemisphere cares most or likes the task the best? And conversely: Which hemisphere cares least and likes the job the least?
Since drawing a perceived form is largely an R-mode function, it helps to reduce L-mode interference as much as possible. The problem is that the left brain is dominant and speedy and is very prone to rush in with words and symbols, even taking over jobs which it is not good at. The split brain studies indicated that dominant L-mode prefers not to relinquish tasks to its mute partner unless it really dislikes the job—either because the job takes too much time, is too detailed or slow or because the left brain is simply unable to accomplish the task. That’s exactly what we need—tasks that the dominant left brain will turn down. The exercises that follow are designed to present the brain with a task that the left hemisphere either can’t or won’t do.