In 1977 Joseph LeDoux and colleagues conducted an interesting experiment on a boy whose left and right brain hemispheres had been surgically separated. They set up a system in which they could ask questions to the separate halves of his brain. Because the left hemisphere controls many aspects of speech, the right brain had to spell out its answers using Scrabble tiles. [LeDoux, J.E., Wilson, D.H. & Gazzaniga, M.S. (1977) A divided mind: Observations on the conscious properties of the separated hemispheres. Annals of Neurology, 2(5) 417-421.]
One of the questions they asked was about what job he would like. The left brain said ‘draftsman’ but the right brain spelled out ‘automobile race’. Because the left brain controls language, it gets to articulate its choices, but the right brain may have other ideas.
The left brain is often associated with linear reasoning, structure and detail and the right brain with holistic reasoning, emotional tone and the big picture – although the real situation is more complex. Apparently, the picture of the spinning dancer below can tell you if you naturally favour your right or left brain. If she appears to be spinning anti-clockwise, you’re a left-brainer, clockwise and you’re a right-brainer. If you think this test is a bit simplistic — that’s a no-brainer. Actually, If this test tells you anything, it may only be which half of your brain you favour at a particular moment for certain types of visual processing and perception, but that may not be true for other functions, or it may be nothing to do with left-right brain differences.
Another more recent set of studies did not involve sliced brains but a more subtle manipulation of social identities in order to produce an internal conflict of opinions.
In this research, various students were primed to think of themselves in particular ways and then asked to make choices. For example, in one of the studies undergraduates were asked to fill in either a questionnaire about world issues of importance to university students to invoke a scholarly identity or a questionnaire about men’s and women’s attitudes to campus issues to invoke a socialite identity. They were then asked to decide which of two publications they would take on a flight. Those who had been primed with a scholarly identity were more likely to take Newsweek, The Economist or The Wall Street Journal. Those with a socialising identity were more likely to take Sports Illustrated, Cosmopolitan or USA Today.
They conducted other studies on Chinese Americans, invoking either their Eastern or Western cultural identity and found similar differences in the choices made in relation to their tendency to social conformity or individualism.
They also found that when people were later asked to evaluate how happy they were with their choices, their level of satisfaction depended on which identity was invoked before evaluation. If it was the same identity as when they made the choice they were happier than if a different identity was now prominent.
[LeBoeuf, R.A. Shafir, E. & Belyavsky Bayuk, J. (in press) The conflicting choices of alternating selves. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.]
- If we just use linear, verbal methods of reflection are we only accessing the thoughts of the left brain?
- Should we be thinking about how we can invoke client identities which are likely to be consistent with their future working identities before encouraging them to make a choice?
- Can we make clients aware of the disagreements that might be happening within them?
- Which way is she spinning?
Related post: Who are you…now?
- Watch this fascinating talk about the two halves of the brain from Jill Bolte Taylor. As a neuroscientists researching into the physiological causes of schizophrenia, she had a very personal introduction to the workings of the brain when she suffered a brain haemorage.
- A new book by Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, looks at the right-left brain split and its influence on art, history and mental illness.
- Read this article by Paul Bloom on the plurality of identity.