Oversimplification is the kryptonite of any scientific idea, oftentimes turning pop science into an elaborate game of telephone, carelessly paring away all the nuances and caveats that make the idea so impactful in the first place. The lateralization of the brain, first studied by Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Walcott Sperry in the 1960s, has been perhaps the biggest victim of bastardization by oversimplification.
The left brain//right brain divide has been pigeon-holing folks for decades now, neatly sorting us into the science-oriented versus the artistically-inclined. The rational male versus the emotional female. The *Spocks* versus the *Kirks*. The practical, ordered, and scientific world is the territory of the left brain, while the imaginative, aesthetic, artistic world is the right brain’s domain…
… The problem with such a black-and-white picture of the brain is that it doesn’t account for all the grey in your grey matter. Sure, neuroscientists agree that the right hemisphere sees the bigger, interconnected picture, and that the left hemisphere picks out details and organizes information to create a sort of rule-bound world. However, regardless of whether math or science or business or literature or philosophy is your jam, you likely rely heavily on both your left and right brain.
As a molecular biologist, I deal almost exclusively in the microscopic, “hidden” world. The world that belongs to the right side of my brain. Of course I spend most of my days making observations, honing in on details and organizing them in my lab notebook searching for patterns in the data. But, what I depend on while devising my experiments and what I rely on while telling the story of these microscopic molecules is all the right-brain power I can muster.
Scientists are in constant search of patterns inherent not just in the data in front of us, but patterns that can be applied broadly to the natural world. We consider the information gathered from the observable world, and extrapolate it to a model through right-brained induction. More importantly, we must be able to weigh the evidence and see what fits into our existing models and what doesn’t, which is a task our think-inside-the-box, rule-bound left brains cannot do. If not for our right brains, we may to this day still believe that the sun rotates around the earth! We may never have transitioned from Newton’s laws of physics to the law of relativity!
Likewise, artists cannot operate solely with their right hemispheres. Sure our right brains give us a whole sensual picture of the world. And maybe artists are slightly better in touch with their right brains compared to their scientific/mathematical counterpoints. But the fact remains that artists depend on their left brains for the detail, the focusing, the ability to convey meaning through language be it written or musical or moving.
The left brain is what allows the photographer to hone in on one a particular moment in time that is relevant or impactful or just downright gorgeous. The left brain is what releases all the insight and emotion and imagery floating around in the writer’s right brain onto the page through language. The left brain is what gives the painter the ability to capture the details of her subject to get the shading just so.
With all this said, something I have been struggling to grasp for quite some time now is why it is that so many scientists and so many artists feel that we belong to two separate worlds? It’s obviously not so simple as “well scientists and artists exist in two fundamentally different brain spaces” because they don’t. Some of the most creative people I’ve met are scientists and some of the most methodical people i’ve met would count themselves artists. We even deal in the same mediums. Open any scientific journal and you’ll see some of the most stunning images you’ve ever seen. Scientists deal in movies, images, color, sound… We all speak the same language, so why aren’t we talking? I have started this blog as a dare to myself to step outside the Ivory Tower and actually venture to talk about what it is we do up here using the language of art. The language of the so-called right brain.
Welcome to ArtLab.
* Photo taken from Iain McGilchrist’s TED talk “The Divided Brain”