Learning Styles and Hemispheric Dominance - Right or Left Brain: Which is Dominant in Your Family?
Karen M. Gibson
Author’s Note: This is the second of two articles about how the differences between our own learning styles and right-brain/left-brain capabilities and that of our children can affect our home learning atmosphere. Part I discussed Learning Styles and ways that you could use the knowledge of your own learning style and that of your children’s to your advantage. Part II discusses the theory of right-brain/left-brain dominance, including how these differences can affect the way we learn and how we communicate with others.
Part II: Hemispheric Dominance
In Learning Styles - Part I, I discussed the various theories of learning styles and related how knowledge of these learning styles assisted me in making a learning environment more suited to my children. Knowledge of learning styles enabled me to loosen the grip of my public school indoctrination, granting me the freedom to begin to really think outside the box concerning education.
Recently, though, I began to wonder what causes such differences in our learning styles. I have always been fascinated at how members of the same genetic pool (first my siblings and I, and now my own children) could have such diverse personalities and needs. The workings of the brain, what causes a person to be a “genius,” and the intriguing possibility of residual genetic memory of previous generations passed along to us are questions my family has wondered about, researched, and discussed. And when I read that individuals who are right-brain dominant tend to be late readers, I knew I needed to explore this further, since I have a son who is a late reader.
How the Brain Works
The brain is made up of two halves, or hemispheres – the left brain and the right brain. The brain is divided into two distinct and separate parts by a fold that runs from the front to the back. These parts are connected to each other by a thick cable of nerves at the base of each brain, called the corpus collosum. A good analogy is that of two separate, incredibly fast and immensely powerful computers, each running different programs from the same input, connected by a network cable, or the corpus collosum. The left hemisphere of our brain is “wired” to the right side of our body and vice versa. This even applies to our eyes, with information from our right eye going to the left hemisphere and information from our left eye feeding the right hemisphere.1
|Left Brain Functions2
||Right Brain Functions
||“Big pictures” oriented
|Words and language
||Symbols and images
|Present and past
||Present and future
|Math and science
||Philosophy and religion
|Knows object name
||Knows object function
Most scientists and researchers seem to agree that there are definite differences in the way each hemisphere of the brain works. Essentially, the right brain is holistic, convergent, and able to ascertain the big picture. The right brain deals with emotions, feelings, creativity, and intuition. The left brain is linear, divergent, and focuses on one thing at a time. The left brain deals with more logical subject areas, such as mathematics and speech. Much of this knowledge is based upon the Nobel Prize winning research of Roger Sperry (Medicine, 1981). In the early 1960s Sperry conducted “split-brain” experiments on an epileptic individual who had undergone surgery to split the corpus collosum, thereby severing the connection between the two hemispheres of the brain. “The surgery revealed what Sperry described as ‘two spheres of consciousness’ locked in the one head, the left-hand side having speech and a rational, intellectual style, while the right was inarticulate, but blessed with special spatial abilities.”3 As a result of Sperry’s findings and subsequent studies, researchers believed they understood the various functions the right brain and the left brain controlled.
Sperry’s research, and subsequent research by many other scientists, resulted in a proliferation of books, articles, web sites, etc., presenting the differences between dominantly right-brained and dominantly left-brained individuals and how those differences affect our learning and our personalities. This research also led to the formation of many theories concerning how our brain came to develop in this manner, with the right and left brains apparently controlling such different aspects of our very being.
Just as with learning styles, there are many theories concerning brain development and hemispheric dominance. Of the many I read, Leonard Shlain’s (The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image) was one of the more interesting. He explains that all vertebrates have a bilobed, or two-hemisphere brain, but in most these lobes perform the same type of tasks. In humans these lobes are specialized, performing different functions. His theory is that the brain grew larger and split its functions in two because it was necessary to rewire one lobe to accommodate speech.4
Shlain believes that the left hemisphere developed into the hunter’s brain, with the ability to focus minutely on single details for long periods of time and the ability to think and plan in a linear fashion. The right hemisphere developed into the gatherer’s brain, with the ability to view the whole landscape with several objectives in mind at the same time; locating healing plants, locating edible berries and roots, and keeping a watchful eye on their children. These hunter/gatherer traits are still key characteristics in descriptions of right/left brain functions.
Author Thomas G. West (In the Mind’s Eye) posits that we are seeing higher incidences of learning disabilities, (dyslexia, ADD, etc.) because the brain is being hot-wired from birth to respond to and learn from visual stimuli than from text. At a very early age children are literally bombarded with fast-paced technological devices (television, computers, etc.) and their images (music videos, movies, image-based software, etc.). The end result of this bombardment is that children’s neural pathways are developing in a very different fashion from those of preceding generations. They become equally adept, and often better adept, at processing images rather than text.
The “Two-Brain Myth”
More recent studies seem to indicate that hemispheric dominance is not as clear-cut as originally thought. Researchers are as interested in how the two hemispheres complement each other and combine to work together as they are in how the hemispheres are different.5
“In a nutshell, we humans do not literally have ‘two brains,’ but we do have two simultaneous systems of mental organization and functioning – each whole and complete in itself, each having highly specialized skills. As some scholars have summarized it: the ‘left brain’ does, the ‘right brain’ is. This is, however, an oversimplification, for quite clearly both the hemispheres are active, though in markedly different ways. As Karl Schmitz-Moormann has noted, the ‘right brain’ cannot accurately be considered a ‘passive partner’ in the human enterprise. Indeed, since the right hemisphere is responsible for our holistic perception of the world, one might argue that it is the dominant one, with the ‘left brain’ functioning as ‘analyzer for the right brain’s perceptions … a servant of the right brain’ (“Philosophical and Theological Reflection,” 255).”6
Strategies for Learning
While we should consider this new research and remain open to new findings, I still believe there is enough existing evidence about hemispheric differences to make knowledge of this area useful in our home education journey.
Barbara Meister Vitale (Unicorns Are Real: A Right-Brained Approach to Learning) describes right brain (hemisphere) / left brain (hemisphere) individuals by both academic skills and modes of consciousness, which are the unique ways that each person processes stimuli.
|Skills Associated with Hemispheric Specialization7
||Shapes and patterns
|Locating details and fact
||Singing and music
|Talking and reciting
||Feelings and emotions
|Modes of Consciousness
Linear and Holistic. Linear means part-to-whole. The left-brained person takes little pieces, lines them up, arranges them in logical order, and arrives at a convergent conclusion. The right-brained person thinks whole-to-part, holistically. The child with a dominant right hemisphere starts with the answer, a total concept, or perceives the whole pattern and discovers a divergent conclusion.
Symbolic and Concrete. Left-hemispheric children think in symbols; they deal with symbols, they can function with symbols. Right-hemispheric children deal with the concrete; they learn by doing, touching, moving, being in the middle of things
Sequential and Random. The left brain approaches life sequentially, while the right brain floats randomly through life’s experiences.
Logical and Intuitive. (The) Logical (person) knows exactly where he gets his answers. He starts out with a little piece of information and logically works toward an end result. Right-brained children are intuitive; they are not logical. They pull the answers right out of the air. They can give you the answer to a long-division problem but they may not be able to work through the sequential steps.
Reality-based and Fantasy-oriented. Left-hemispheric children can deal with reality, with the way thing are. Left-hemispheric children are very much affected by the environment and will adjust to it. If something is presented to them they will shift and react. If something is not there for left-hemispheric children, it doesn’t exist for them.
Right-hemispheric children will try to change the environment, to make it shift and react to meet their needs in any way they know how. They deal with fantasy, with imagery, with imagination.
Temporal and Non-temporal. Left-hemispheric children have a sense of time. Right-hemispheric children have very little sense of time. They simply do not comprehend when you set time limits. They cannot think in any terms except the here and now.
Ms. Vitale lists twenty-six observations one can use as a way of “screening” for right-brained dominance. This list is meant to be used with young children and the reason Ms. Vitale suggest “screening” is so the “teacher” can modify the teaching approach used for right-brained children. A large section of her book contains “learning strategies,” alternative ways to “teach” subjects to children who appear to be dominantly right-brained learners. If you have a child who exhibits many right-brained tendencies and you believe these tendencies are impeding his progress in learning to read, etc., you might find Ms. Vitale’s suggestions helpful. Many of her strategies I used with my late reader child, discovering them in my own hit and miss fashion. I would have much preferred to have been presented with such a list early on in our “learning to read” journey, as it likely would have eliminated much frustration for both my son and myself.
I went through the “screening” list, keeping separate tallies for all the members of my family, including my husband. I recalled anecdotes his mother had told me of his days in school and remembered my own experiences. I discovered that, while I hit about six observations for myself, my husband hit twenty-two out of the twenty-six! Based upon this screening list and several of the other resources I explored, it would seem that I am mostly left-brained while my husband is very right-brained. In addition, all three of our children seem to favor the right-hemisphere for academics and in modes of consciousness, some much more than others.
How Hemispheric Differences Affect My Family
These hemispheric differences affect communications in my family in a large way; miscommunication between the other members of my family and myself is often the norm. One example that comes readily to mind occurred this past spring. My daughter, Kat, drew plans for an elaborate garden complete with stone and brick walkways, fountains, and benches. We are working together on this project; her job is to work on the walkways, etc., while it is my job to fill the other areas with appropriate plants, bushes, etc. As we started work this spring, I needed to know from her exactly where the walkways were to be before I put in the plants I had purchased. I bought lawn edging, thinking we could lay it on the ground approximately where the sides of her walkways were to be and then wrap the edging around what would be the plant areas. It would be easier for me to put in the plants if I knew where the edge of each garden area would be. As usual, what seemed simple to me became a long drawn-out discussion about what was ultimately going to be done with the lawn edging. Kat thought I wanted to use it to confine her walkways. When she finally understood what I wanted to do with the edging, she let me know that she did not intend for the gardens to be confined either. But I was unable to visualize where the gardens would be because there were no walkways yet, even though she had a perfectly well drawn diagram. In the end, she simply laid out strings of yarn along the paths where her walkways would go and I planted my plants a fair distance from them. When the pathways are actually laid and the plants grow, the distance between them will disappear and all will look fine. As often happens, we arrived at the same conclusion, but by completely opposite thinking.
Another area of dramatic difference is in the area of visualization. It amazes my children to know that I am unable to “picture” or visualize something in my mind. I usually “see” actual words in my mind rather than pictures when listening to a story, while my children can easily visualize a story playing in their minds like a movie. They believe this is a serious deficiency on my part and have taken it upon themselves to help me develop this right brain ability by describing scenes to me. They begin with a simple description: “There is a man just stepping outside from a building onto a sidewalk. He is wearing a red hat, blue pullover shirt, and blue jeans. See the hat? It’s a fishing hat, full of buttons and pins and fishing lures. See the turkey feather sticking out of it?” And they continue to develop the picture piece by piece until I tell them that I have “lost” the picture. Each time they guide me through this exercise, I am able to hold the picture in my mind just a bit longer.
So, while scientists and researchers continue to unravel the mysteries and wonders of the human brain, I can only observe the anecdotal evidence of my own experiences within my own family, which seem to support the popular “right-brain” theory. One thing I am sure of – only those individuals who can tap the resources and abilities of both brains, and in the process become more “whole-brained,” will realize their full potential. Perhaps, with more knowledge about the human brain and its abilities, we will all someday be able to realize our untapped potential.
- Jeffrey Freed, M.A.T., and Laurie Parson, Right-brained Children in a Left-Brained World, Fireside (Simon & Schuster), New York, 1999; ISBN: 0684847930
- Barbara Meister Vitale, Unicorns Are Real: A Right-Brained Approach to Learning, Jalmar Press, Torrance CA, 1982; ISBN: 0446323403
- Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., The Edison Trait: Saving the Spirit of Your Nonconforming Child, Random House, New York, 1997; ISBN: 0812927371
- Thomas G. West, In The Mind's Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People With Dyslexia & Other Learning Difficulties, Prometheus Books, Amherst NY, 1997; ISBN: 1573921556
- Barbara Meister Vitale, Free Flight: Celebrating Your Right Brain, Jalmar Press, Torrance CA, 1986; ISBN: 0915190443
- Thomas Armstrong, The Myth of the A.D.D. Child: 50 Ways to Improve Your Child’s Behavior and Attention Span Without Drugs, Labels, or Coercion, NY: Plume (The Penguin Group), 1997: ISBN 0452275474
- Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word And Image, Penguin Compass, New York, 1998; ISBN: 0140196013