Thursday, May 8, 2008

Right Brain Rising

Daniel Pink's recent book, A Whole New Mind, begins with an intriguing chapter called, "Right Brain Rising." In this chapter, Pink discusses the progression in thinking about how the left and right brain each operate. His chapter begins as he tells the story of how he decided to become part of a study on brain imaging. The study involved looking at images of the brain at work, and at rest. In the past scientists and doctors have used machines that were able to take brain images. The old machines were able to create what look like portraits. With recent advances in technology, now scientists can use functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), which captures the brain in action. Researchers ask subjects to do various activities such as humming tunes, looking at pictures, and listening to songs. The FMRI tracks the parts of the brain to which the blood flows. This new technology has allowed doctors and researchers to learn more about the human experience- "from dyslexia in children, to the mechanisms of Alzheimers to how parents respond to a baby's cries." (pg. 9)

After Pink described the research that he took part in, he went on to discuss the new advances in our knowledge of the brain. The corpus callosum divides the brain into two parts, the left and right hemisphere. Until recently, many people believed that left side was the crucial side, and the right side was not as important. However, in the 1950s, Roger Sperry did a study on patients who had their corpus callsums removed. By studying these patients, Sperry realized that although humans have two separate hemispheres, he found the right hemisphere wasn't inferior to the left. The two halves were just different.

So, the next question that Pink asks is what are the functions of each part of the brain?

Let's look at the differences of the left and ride side of the brain.

Sperry discovered that the left hemisphere reasoned sequentially, excelled at analysis, and handled words. He then found that the right hemisphere reasoned holistically, recognized patterns, and interpreted emotions and nonverbal expressions. Pink then breaks it down more specifically, and states that the left hemisphere controls the ride side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. For example, if you tap your left foot, the right hemisphere was responsible for that action.
Next, Pink states that the left hemisphere is sequential, and right hemisphere is simultaneous. An example of this is when you read. The left hemisphere reads words from left to right. While the left brain is decoding each word, the right hemisphere is interpreting things simultaneously. This right side of our brain allows us to see many things at once. Scientists believe that the right hemisphere allows us to recognize faces.
Next, and what I personally think is an amazing difference between the two hemispheres of the brain, is that the left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context. For example, lets imagine that you and your significant other make plans to have friends over for dinner. You tell your friends, and significant other to come over around 6:30. You also instruct your significant other to pick up a bottle of wine on the way home from work. When you significant other shows up at 7, you are there with your friends. When your significant other walks in the door, he immediately says, "oh, I'll go to the store to get the wine." Almost all brains, would understand that he is going to the wine store down the road. Your left brain interpreted the literal meaning of the words. However, the right brain understood another aspect of the exchange. The words, "I'll go to the store," were not neutral. The rolling of your eyes at that fact that he is late, and without wine, signals that you are angry.
The concept is incredibly intriguing, especially as a learning specialists who works with students with Autism. A person with damage to one aspect of the brain, let's say the right for example, would not realize that the person is angry with their significant other. The person would only understand that someone was going to the store. As more and more research is coming out about Autism, this makes a lot of sense. Many students on the Autistic Spectrum cannot read nonverbal language, don't understand metaphors, and have a difficult time interpreting social interactions.
Finally, Pink states that the left hemisphere analyzes detail; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture. Basically, the right hemisphere takes details and puts them together. Again, when I think about students that I work with on the Autism Spectrum, they generally have difficulty synthesizing what they learn. Many Autistic children can memorize details and facts, but can't synthesize the information. This could indicate that their right hemisphere is not being activated as much as people without Autism. Again, research on Autism is very new, so it will be interesting to learn exactly what is happening in the brains of students with Autism.
Pink ends this chapter by stating that how our cerebral hemisphere operates dictates how we live our lives. He says some people are more comfortable with "logical, sequential, computer-like reasoning." Others are more comfortable with holistic, intuitive and non-linear reasoning." Most likely, the hemisphere that a person is most comfortable with, will dictate what type of job a person gets. He labels the first group of people, L-directed thinkers, and the second group R-directed thinkers. His final paragraph of this chapter states that our society used to prioritize L-directed thinkers. However, now he states R-directed thinkers are what our society needs more of, and is focusing on. The premise of his book is that R-directed thinkers will now determine who "soars or stumbles" in our society.
This chapter is very interesting, and I think it's very appropriate to think about in terms of our educational system. We focus on things such as standardized test which prioritize L-directed thinking. Instead, to help our students to be successful, we also need to encourage our students to be R-directed thinkers. According to Pink's theory, it is essential that we inspire our students to be creative, and develop their R-directed thinking skills.

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1 comment:

Megan P. said...


I enjoyed reading your chapter summary. You made some interesting connections between your work with autistic children and the brain research that Daniel Pink presents in A Whole New Mind.

This was a great summary!