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Brain Myths: What Your Brain Hemispheres Are Really Up To

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You’ve heard the story: the left hemisphere of your brain is logical, analytical and detail oriented; the right hemisphere is where creativity and intuition spring from. This “pop-psychology” view of the right and left hemispheres has made quite an impact on popular culture – there were books written instructing individuals on how to “draw with the right hemisphere” or how to “teach to the right hemisphere”. If you are good at maths, you’re a left-brainer. If you are good at music, you’re a right-brainer.

Is this view of the left and right hemispheres correct? It’s not entirely incorrect, but it’s a view that needs some revision in view of the latest research.

The right hemisphere is a pattern recogniser

A more accurate way of viewing the roles of the right hemisphere is that it is better at the “big picture”. The right hemisphere allows us to focus on and appreciate the gist of a learning area.

  • With mathematics, the role of the right hemisphere is to help a child appreciate concepts of less vs. more even before they can understand specific quantities.
  • In music, the right hemisphere plays a vital role as it recognises melody, which allows infants to recognise and reproduce nursery rhymes.
  • When it comes to sight, the right hemisphere is suited to perceiving outline or form, rather than detail.
  • With regards speech, the right hemisphere is better at processing voice inflection and voice contour (the change in voice pitch over time), as opposed to the details of words spoken.

Overall, research with the way babies react to sounds shows the right hemisphere is better at processing voice contour (the change in voice pitch over time), facial expression and aspects of size and quantity – which shows us how children begin to learn about music, art, maths and language. The right hemisphere is preferential in processing form, structure, and perhaps, direct links to emotion.

The left hemisphere deals with the details 

The right hemisphere is better at the “big picture” – but the left hemispheres is better with granular information – the “details”.

The left hemisphere handles complex, rapidly changing stimuli, in which determining the order is critical – as in speech, for example, where we must discern and order very rapidly changing complex acoustic events very quickly. So, in speech the left hemisphere is suited to analysing the specific sequence of sounds and words, which is essential for understanding grammar and perceiving the internal details of words.

The right hemisphere matures first

It also seems the right hemisphere matures before the left. This may be why mothers exaggerate language clues when talking to their babies, probably due to an intuitive knowledge that this is what the baby’s dominant hemisphere – the right hemisphere – needs at this stage. Once the left hemisphere catches up, such exaggerated language cues are not needed as much.

In fact, some research indicates that when typical right-first maturation does not occur, developmental abnormalities may result – including possibly autism.

Two sides of the same coin

Really, rather than using one hemisphere or the other for a task, we use them together for different aspects of the same skill. Rather than a left-brainer or a right-brainer, we are both. Of course, we may be stronger in one area over another – but if there’s one thing we’ve learned at Sonic Learning, it’s that our perceived deficiencies are really just skills we haven’t learned yet.

This blog post was based on a blog post by neuroscientist Dr Martha Burns.


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