Watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson Elegantly Debunk The Right Brain, Left Brain Myth

Author: Bahar Gholipour


Neil deGrasse Tyson touched on the notion of right brained versus left brained in a recent interview with FastCompany about his new TV show on National Geographic, Star Talk.

"Don't call me left brained, right brained. Call me human," Tyson said. In fact, he voiced his disagreement with people's general habit of using oversimplified labels to understand others.

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"I'm disappointed with some aspects of civilization," Tyson said. "One is our unending urge to bypass subtlety of character, thought, and expression and just categorize people ... If you want to understand who and what a person is, have a conversation with him."

"I'm 'brained.' Not right brained or left brained. I have a brain," Tyson said.

And he is right (obviously, it's Tyson!). The idea that we have a dominant brain hemisphere is not even scientifically true. The dichotomy, holding that left brainers are logical, good with mathematics and language, while right brainers are creative and artistic, is no more credible than a Buzzfeed quiz.

But the idea does originate from fascinating nature of hemispheric processing in humans, shown by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga decades ago. In a recent interview with Los Angeles magazine on the occasion of his newly published book, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain, Gazzaniga explains how split-brain theories spiraled out of the lab into everyday conversations.

In the 1960s, Gazzaniga worked with neurobiologist Roger Sperry, for his doctorate research. Sperry had found that splitting monkeys' brains into two hemispheres by cutting the connective corpus callosum fibers results in something bizarre. The right side of the brain didn't seem to know what was going on in the left side, suggesting that the fibers may in fact be communication wires between the two hemispheres. Later, Gazzaniga found a similar, but subtler effect in people with epilepsy who had their corpus callosum surgically severed to prevent seizures from spreading across the brain.

One patient that Gazzaniga worked with was W.J., a World War II veteran with epilepsy whose left hemisphere had been surgically disconnected from his right. When Gazzaniga showed a square to W.J.'s left hemisphere (by limiting the image to his corresponding visual field), W.J. said he could see a box. But when the image was shown to his right hemisphere, even though he could point at it, he was unable to name it.

Gazzaniga theorized that normally, both hemispheres process an image, but only the left hemisphere could articulate what it was. In W.J.'s case, in the absence of communication from the right side, the left side didn't have all the information it needed.

Although Gazzaniga's research showed how much the two hemispheres actually needed to communicate with each other to carry out simple cognitive tasks, the idea was popularized as "two very different persons inhabiting our heads," in the early 1970s, and continues to live on in personality quizzes to this date.