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The Difference Between the Left and Right Brain

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 15, 2021

The phrase “left and right brain” refers to the anatomical halves, or hemispheres, of your brain. It’s popularly believed that the left and right hemispheres are distinct, controlling separate aspects of your cognitive functions and dictating certain personality traits. Studies have recently shown that the left and right separation is misunderstood. 

How the Brain Works

The brain is our motherboard, storage, operating system, and more. The nuances of its functions can’t be summarized in a black-and-white dichotomy, which is how the left-and-right-brain idea came around.

The brain is divided into symmetrical left and right hemispheres. Each hemisphere is in charge of the opposite side of the body, so your right brain controls your left hand. The right hemisphere also takes in sensory input from your left side and vice versa. 

The brain is segmented into regions called lobes. Your lobes isolate your brain’s functions to specific areas.

  • The frontal lobe (front of the brain) controls your body movement, personality, problem-solving, concentration, planning, emotional reactions, sense of smell, the meaning of words, and general speech.
  • Your parietal lobe (upper middle of the brain) controls your sense of touch and pressure, sense of taste, and bodily awareness.
  • The temporal lobe (middle of the brain) governs your sense of hearing, ability to recognize others, emotions, and long-term memory. 
  • The occipital lobe (backside of the brain) controls the important sense of sight.
  • The cerebellum (lower backside of the brain) governs fine motor control, balance, and coordination.
  • The limbic lobe (middle of the brain) controls emotions. 

The “Left Brain, Right Brain” Myth

While there is a left brain and a right brain, their use in popular culture has created a widespread misunderstanding. It’s common to believe that the left brain is for logical thinking and the right brain is for creativity. People categorize themselves as being left or right brain-oriented depending on their interests and skills. 

Scientists have been able to look closer at the brain and see that it’s more complicated than “left = logical.” It wasn’t until the 1960s when split-brain surgeries, a treatment of epilepsy, gave scientists the chance to investigate each half of the brain separately. 

Scientists deduced that the left brain was better at language and rhythm, while the right brain was better at emotions and melody. However, this doesn’t mean that the two halves are entirely separate. 

The myth of the totally opposite hemispheres persists for a variety of reasons.

  • It satisfies the need for order. 
  • Like astrological signs, it gives people a defined personality type.
  • People naturally see creativity and logic as opposites.
  • People find the idea of having untapped creative power appealing. 

Left vs. Right Brain

With all that said, are there any differences between the two sides of the brain, other than what side of the body they control?

A study at the University of Utah has shined a light on the brain. After analyzing brain data from 1,011 young people, the evaluators concluded that both halves of the brain are used regularly, not one or the other for any particular activity. 

It’s still true that language is left-oriented and emotions are right-oriented. It’s also true that the lobes of the brain have specific jobs. But no evidence suggests that a person’s left or right brain is stronger than the other. 

It’s all about the neural connections. When you experience sensory input, process it, and take action, neurons in your brain light up with activity. All of these pieces require a different part of the brain, but since they are part of the same neural network, certain areas of the brain have stronger connections than others. 

A complex world equals a complex brain. The millions of stimuli that our brain is processing aren’t black-and-white, so there isn’t a clear cut area for everything. Our brain often juggles stimuli from one area to another using these neural pathways. 

While the temporal lobe governs your ability to hear music, multiple parts of the brain are put to work when you have an emotional reaction to the music, internalize the musical rhythms, and follow the melody.

Not Very Different

While the two hemispheres have their own domains, they don’t have as much influence on personalities as initially thought. You might not be able to refer to yourself as left or right-brained anymore, but the personality traits are still uniquely part of your brain. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Arizona State University: “What Are the Regions of the Brain and What Do They Do?”

Dana Foundation: “Right Brain, Left Brain: A Misnomer.”

JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICINE: “Left- vs. Right-Brained: Why the Brain Laterality Myth Persists.”

npr: “The Truth About The Left Brains/Right Brain Relationship.”

PLOS ONE: “An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging.”

U HEALTH: “RESEARCHERS DEBUNK MYTH OF ‘RIGHT-BRAIN’ AND ‘LEFT-BRAIN’PERSONALITY TRAITS.” 

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