The Missing Manual: A User's Guide to the Mind

Ruthanna Gordon
Jun 10, 2013

Whether it’s a computer, a car, a screwdriver, or a pen, you probably have a tool that you’ve used for years—and can use more effectively because you know it inside and out.  But there’s a tool we carry with us everywhere, and use for almost everything, whose workings most of us understand only vaguely.  I’m talking, of course, about the human brain. 

Even the best-trained psychologists understand relatively little about this most powerful and flexible of tools. For Sci on the Fly, I plan to post outtakes from the (mostly, but not entirely, missing) manual.

Although popular—and frequently accurate—books about the mind’s workings are becoming more common, there are still a lot of myths floating around.  For example, you’ve probably been asked at some point whether you’re right-brained or left-brained.  Those with a dominant left brain, we’re told, are verbal, analytic, and detail-oriented.  Right-brained folks, meanwhile, are supposed to be intuitive, creative, big-picture thinkers.

The myth has a grain of truth to it. The most evolutionarily recent part of your brain does have 2 hemispheres (separate halves), connected by a thick cable of nerves that lets them share information.  And they don’t think in precisely the same way. For most people, language production (speaking, signing, and writing) take place largely on the left side.  If you’re left-handed or ambidextrous, there’s about a 15% chance that you use your right hemisphere for language, and a 15% chance that you’ve managed to divide the task evenly.  You also have a larger sensory-motor cortex in the hemisphere opposite your dominant hand, whether or not that’s the same hemisphere you use to speak.

There are other differences between the hemispheres. Each one controls, and gets input from, the opposite side of the body. The right—unless you use it for language—is a bit more musically inclined.  It’s also better at holistic processing, taking care of the forest while the left hemisphere looks after the trees.

There’s no evidence that most people have overarching dominance in one hemisphere rather than the other. Unique talents draw on both sets of specialties.  For example, a singer-songwriter needs both linguistic and musical chops, and a mathematician needs to balance hyper-detailed analysis with the ability to pick up on grand patterns.

Researchers have found that creativity, in particular, takes place across the brain.  In fact, creativity depends on making connections between ideas—and brain areas—as diverse as possible.  When you see analogies and possibilities that no one has seen before, your neural network lights up across the hemispheres.

But this is supposed to be a manual. How, from this briefly sketched diagram, can you learn to use your brain better? It helps, I think, to know that creativity comes from making connections, not from avoiding certain types of thinking. Creativity isn’t the opposite of analysis, or speech, or paying attention to detail—it can incorporate all those things, and make them part of something even larger and grander.

Image via Hatchibombotar on Flickr Creative Commons.

Reviewed by Stephanie Byng.

Ruthanna Gordon

Disclaimer

This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

Comments (1)

Stephanie Byng (not verified)
June 24, 2013 at 1:45 pm
It is interesting how myths such as this keep being perpetuated generation after generation. I had a friend in school who thought that scratching the right side of her head made her more creative. In reality, it was probably more of a compulsion brought on by anxiety about school.

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