Choosing sides

Because you don’t need to own the universe. Just see it.  To have the privilege of seeing the whole of time and space… that’s ownership enough. -The 10th doctor

Very few quotes have summarized the fundamental differences between the left brain and the right brain as succinctly as the above quote. And yet, even though the difference can be summarized pretty nicely in a few sentences, there are a lot of misconceptions about the differences between the left brain and the right brain. The thing that makes these misconceptions so hard to break is that they’re just like most other forms of pop psychology: just accurate enough to be tricky.

Google would be jealous

Before I can get into those misconceptions (and what reality is), there’s something you need to understand about the brain. We tend to think of the brain as a biological microprocessor, but that’s not quite accurate. You see, a microprocessor has pre-defined subsystems with very well-defined tasks. The brain is much more sophisticated than that. A better analogy is to think of the brain as a biological cluster of computers (or probably more accurately, a biological cloud). Although you do have subclusters that handle specific segments of functionality, there’s no reason why they have to be dedicated to that task.

As it turns out, the brain is amazingly adaptable. In fact, your brain can and does spread tasks out to parts that we don’t generally associate with handling those tasks.

If it sounds like your brain is chaotic, it’s because it is. The different parts can even work at odds with each other some times. To deal with this, your ego tends to favor certain parts of the brain more than others. Generally, you favor a specific hemisphere over the other. In fact, you even favor a specific portion of a specific hemisphere. But that’s the subject of another blog post.

The left brain is logical, the right brain is creative

As it turns out, the information that I gave in the last section was quite a revelation to neurologists within the last couple of decades. Up until that point in time, they thought that the brain had a strict division of labor. It was thought that the left part of the brain handled logic while the right part of the brain was creative. If you wanted to be more creative, you needed to develop the right brain. If you want to be more logical, you need to develop the left brain. As a right-brained thinker, I’m living proof that the right brain is every bit as capable of logic as the left brain. It just tends to be a different kind of logic.

As it turns out, the two hemispheres can do mostly the same things. In fact, what we refer to as the “left brain” might not physically even be the left hemisphere (if you’re a lefty, there’s about a 70% chance of this!). The point is, there isn’t any reason why the left brain can’t do the things the right brain does and vice versa. However, these two hemispheres do tend to “specialize”. See, the brain is capable of rewiring itself. This is part of the process of learning. As one hemisphere does one task, it rewires itself so it can do that task better in the future. Thus, you do see differences emerge between the two hemispheres. These differences are developmental rather than biological though.

So what IS the difference?

If you’ve ever taken a personality test, you got back a four-letter code ending in J (for judging) or P (for perceiving). Most of the ideas that these tests are based on come from CG Jung. Jung said that judgers like to plan ahead of time and perceivers dislike to have their future mapped out ahead of time. The technology didn’t exist at the time for Jung to realize this, but he was essentially describing the difference between the left brain and the right brain (albeit with a somewhat primitive understanding).

Let’s go back to the Doctor Who quote I presented at the beginning of this post. In this scene, the Doctor (a perceiver) was talking to the Master (a judger). You see, the Master had a goal: complete domination of the universe. The Doctor never really has any explicit goals that he sets ahead of time. He sort of just bumbles around the universe until he runs into trouble. This illustrates the major differences between the left and right brain, but there are still others.

The forest or the trees?

Left-brained thinkers think very linearly. They tend to divide the topics up into individual parts and consider them one by one before considering the big picture. They may be seen as “not being able to see the forest for the trees”, but that isn’t strictly true. It’s more that they just haven’t moved from considering the parts to considering the whole.

Right-brainers might be seen as being “big-picture” oriented, but this isn’t necessarily true either. Distinguishing parts from the whole is a distinctly left-brained way of thinking. The right brain is probably better thought of as being “whole-picture” oriented. While right-brained people might start from the standpoint of the overall picture, you’ll notice that there are certain details that they just won’t let go of.

Experience vs instruction

Left-brained thinkers tend to do very well in school as our educational model is very much aligned with how they think. The model of listening to a lecture and reading an assignment fits very well into their mode of thinking. Left-brainers don’t really need experience to go about their tasks. But they do need instruction. They can follow instructions very well, but they don’t do very well when instructions are poorly defined or when the situation changes in such a way those instructions didn’t anticipate.

Right-brained thinkers do need experience. Until they’ve actually tried something once or twice, they have no frame of reference no matter how much instruction they get. In fact, they will usually feel as though instructions are boxing them in and limiting their options. However, (much to the chagrin of their left-brained counterparts) they are good at improvisation. They’re good at reacting quickly when plans become inadequate.


There’s a lot more to be said on this subject, but hopefully this should be a good outline of the differences between the left brain and the right brain.