May 2023 | 

The Right/Left Brain Myth and More Neuroscience Insight

The Right/Left Brain Myth and More Neuroscience Insight

Are you a right- or left-brained thinker — more creative, or more analytical? The theory, which dates from the 1960s, views people who are more creative and stronger in divergent thinking as right-brained, because that side of their brain is dominant. “Left brain” people, with the other side of the brain dominant, are more logical and analytical. Following that theory, managers who need innovative ideas from their team should find someone who’s right-brained. Need to crunch numbers? It’s a left-brained team member you need.

Despite a number of studies that debunked this concept just 50 years after it first appeared, it persists — Google it to find dozens of current examples. The good news is that if you need innovative ideas, they might be easier to find. Neuroscience research reveals that there is an “innovation circuit” in the brain that supports exploration, divergent thinking, and creativity. But it lives in both sides of the brain.

The example is just one of a number of outdated, disproved, “scientific” business theories on Wharton professor Michael Platt’s radar. Platt has been exploring the connection between neuroscience and business for over a decade, conducting and sharing research with profound insights for leadership, team building, and decision making. The director of the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative and The Neuroscience of Business: Innovations in Leadership and Strategic Decisions program says leaders can leverage these insights, and stop relying on debunked myths, to better understand their workforce and how to manage for greater value and more meaningful work.

For Innovative Thinking, Ditch the Right Brain/Left Brain Theory

The real science behind creativity centers on the discovery of the brain’s innovation engine, or the “default mode network,” so called because it was discovered when scientists were scanning people’s brains while they took breaks between tasks.

About 20 years ago, neurologists were collecting brain data from participants while they were performing a task — and also when they were idle. The scientists discovered that during the time between task performances, a specific set of brain areas was active. Whenever people were allowed to relax and let their minds wander, this area strongly activated, but when they went back to performing simple routine tasks, the default network shut off. And in fact, people who report more mind wandering during the day show stronger baseline activity in this network than people who daydream less. It seems to play an important role in exploration, spinning out new ideas, and even imagining the future.

There’s also an opposing circuit that supports focus and routine task performance, sometimes called the “fronto-parietal attention network,” meaning it lives in the front and sides of the brain. This circuit is most active when someone is concentrating on a single task, especially a rote one like doing arithmetic or pushing buttons in response to prompts.

One of the fascinating things about these circuits is that when one is turned up, the other is turned down. That means if you’re working on a routine task like data entry in an Excel spreadsheet or answering email, it’s pretty hard to be dreaming up new product innovations.

Studies with monkeys, who have these same networks for exploration and focus, revealed that neurons in monkeys’ innovation engine fired tens of seconds before they made the decision to try a new option or diverge from a habitual routine. Even more importantly, when these neurons were stimulated electrically, monkeys actively tried something new. When these neurons were shut off, monkeys couldn’t learn new patterns, because they stuck to their old routines.

This is important evidence that activity levels in the brain’s innovation network actually do drive exploration and divergent thinking. To put it to use, remember that the innovation network can’t work optimally when you’re also involved in a routine task. Multi-tasking is the enemy of innovation.

The “Learning Styles” Myth

There are plenty of tests to help determine whether someone is a visual learner (or physical, verbal, social, or one of the other purported styles). Like the right brain/left brain theory, they have all largely been debunked. One study echoed the findings of many others, concluding, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.”

Neuroscience research shows that our brains are statistical pattern-learning devices that continuously generate updated estimates of the current state of the world. Remarkably, they do so using the same algorithm — called reinforcement learning — that is at the heart of machine learning tools that are revolutionizing business and commerce through big data.

Reinforcement learning works by comparing what we predicted with what actually happened and tries to minimize the gap between the two, known as the “reward prediction error.” When reward prediction errors are large, it means the world is much better than we forecast. When they are small, the world is just about the same as we expected. And when they are zero, the world is fully predicted and there is nothing to learn. This algorithm is so efficient that it guides the behavior of every animal on the planet, and has also been harnessed to support personalized advertising online, self-driving cars, and autonomous drones.

Managers who want their teams to absorb valuable lessons from both their mistakes and their successes can harness the power of reinforcement learning through one surprising trait. Google’s former senior vice president for people operations, Laszlo Bock, said the organization’s study of great leaders revealed the power of consistency: “For leaders, it’s important that people know you are consistent and fair in how you think about making decisions and that there’s an element of predictability. If a leader is consistent, people on their teams experience tremendous freedom, because then they know that within certain parameters, they can do whatever they want. If your manager is all over the place, you’re never going to know what you can do, and you’re going to experience it as very restrictive.”