The Beautiful Brain (No more mythology)

Last night I attended a lecture by Dr. Mohammed Alsuwaidan, Head of the Mood Disorders Unit and Kuwait Center for Mental Health. His topic was “Creativity and Bipolor Disorder” and it was amazing. There is a correlation between profound creativity and Bipolar Disorder, which he demonstrated with the latest research. That’s where he got me. He started showing real time images of the brain, working. But first, he showed this illustration…

Beautiful, and wrong. Very romantic, but still wrong.

As Dr. Alsuwaidan pointed out, it’s one of two enduring myths that just won’t die. (The other myth is that we only use 10% of the brain’s cognitive power …also wrong.) In fact, this absolutely gorgeous image is the brain working – and this is how it looks whether solving a physics problem or painting. In other words, while language or computation may begin in one hemisphere or the other (and it could be either) the cognitive process, while completing any task, involves the whole brain.

IMG_3518Where this is interesting is in the context of education. There are whole curriculums based on Hermann’s Brain Dominance Theory. Learning styles, classroom setups, assumptions, and processes all based on a myth.  Don’t get me wrong – I advocate for understanding learning preferences, have implemented differentiation when I was teaching, and my doctoral dissertation is on using learning styles to increase client engagement with therapeutic homework. I just never really bought into the right side/left side theory.

In our home as I was growing up, we didn’t have a television. We lived on an acreage (small farm) in Northern British Columbia, and when the chores were done, we read or played games as a family. My parents kept us occupied and engaged, but certainly connected us to the wider world with books, newspapers and National Geographic magazine. Every month we’d pounce on the latest edition and read it cover to cover.  I loved it – I developed a yearning to see Petra (Jordan) from reading NG – my visit in 2011 was everything I hoped for and more.

Anyway, when I was about 14, I read a story about a young girl with a form of epilepsy so severe that it was killing her. Hundreds of seizures per day were causing deterioration of intellect and brain volume, and eventually, in a daring experiment, the left half of her brain was removed (this is the early 70s, remember). The seizures stopped, and four years later ( when the article was written) she had “…slight residual weakness on the right hand side.” Her intelligence was intact, her executive function normal, and without knowing her history, one would never guess that half her brain had been removed.

Neuroplasticity was unknown then – the doctors really didn’t know how she would be after the surgery, but it was a desperate measure for a dire situation. Everyone was stunned to realise that her brain had the capacity to make up for the loss, and today, that same brain has an equal number of neurons in one half of a brain as a normal brain has in both halves.

Language is said to originate in the left hemisphere …except that intonation is processed by the right hemisphere. Linear thinking is said to originate on the right side of the brain, but POW! the left side lights up equally bright in real time when a brainiac solves an equation.

Right side/left side Brain Dominance Theory is dead. I wonder how long it will take before the education system acknowledges the fallacy and stops categorising children in this way?

More about this here, here, and here, and a much more recent success story: Brooklyn Bauer

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