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Right Brain / Left Brain: What Is It All About?

A simple explanation of right / left brain theory and its relevance to painters.


Creative thinking
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Right/Left Brain Quiz for Artists

The concept of right brain and left brain thinking developed from the research in the late 1960s of an American psycho-biologist Roger W Sperry. He discovered that the human brain has two very different ways of thinking. One (the right brain) is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture then the details. The other (the left brain) is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981, although subsequent research has show things aren't quite as polarized as once thought (nor as simple).

I Thought Humans had Only One Brain, so Why do We Talk About Right Brain and Left Brain?
We do have only one brain, but it's got various 'bits' (see anatomy of the brain). The part of the brain that controls rational functions, the cerebral cortex, is made up of two halves. These are connected by masses of nerve fibers which allow 'messages' to pass between them. These halves are commonly called the right brain and left brain, but should more correctly be termed 'hemispheres'. For some reason, our right and left hemispheres control the 'opposite' side of our bodies, so the right hemisphere controls our left side while the left hemisphere controls the right side.

So if I'm Left-Handed, Does This Mean My Right Brain is Dominant?
No, hand dominance is not directly related to brain dominance. And, remember, just like you don't do everything with only the one hand, so your brain doesn't do everything with one side, although there is generally a preference. However, a significant number of artists have been and are left-handed, more than would be suggested by the one-in-ten occurrence of left-handedness in the population. While those who are left handed do exhibit a greater propensity for right-brain dominance, being right handed does not preclude your right brain from dominating.

How is the Right Brain / Left Brain Concept Relevant to Artists?
When you start a painting, you need be able to to visualize the final painting in your mind (right brain, working from the whole), then develop the painting, choosing the elements, matching and mixing colors, placing in the shadows and highlights (right brain, working on various things simultaneously), but at the same time be able to look critically at what you've doing (left brain, being analytical). By finding out whether your thinking is dominated by your right or left brain, you can then deliberately set out to use the 'right brain' way of thinking in your painting or drawing, rather than working on 'auto-pilot'. By trying a different strategy you will probably be surprised by what different results you can produce.

What are the Characteristics of Right Brain and Left Brain Thinking?
This table sets out the characteristics of right brain and left brain thinking. This quiz will tell you which side dominates your thinking (or whether you've a balance between the two).

Is it Better to be Right Brained than Left Brained?
Though right-brain or non-verbal thinking is often regarded as more 'creative', there is no right or wrong here; it's merely two different ways of thinking. One is not better than the other, just as being right-handed is not 'superior' to being left-handed. What's important is to be aware that there are different ways of thinking, knowing what your natural preference is, and if it's strongly verbal (left brain) rather than visual (right brain) being open to trying new approaches which deliberately approach painting or drawing in a right-brain way.

Why do I Keep Hearing About Betty Edwards and Her Book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain"?
In 1980 Betty Edwards published the first edition of her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which applied the concepts of right and left brain to learning to draw. She put forward techniques whereby you can consciously access the right side of the brain when drawing, which helps you draw or paint what you see rather than what you know. It's become a classic and helped many people who believed they were incapable of drawing.

Have you tested whether your right brain or left brain is dominant with the Right Brain / Left Brain Quiz yet? Or tried this Right Brain Exercises for Artists: Taking a Line for a Walk?

Update: August 2013, latest neurological research says different regions of our brains work as a team for creativity. See Forget the Left/Right Brain Divide and Understanding the Myth of Left Brain and Right Brain Dominance.

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