Mind Body Seminar: July 1976
EDUCATING BOTH HALVES OF THE BRAIN
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA,
July 24-25, 1976
Professional educators have long hoped that research on the brain would illuminate the process of education, but until recently the great advances and breakthroughs in brain research have been of interest only to neuroscientists. Finally we have learned some facts about the brain that have profound implications for everyday classroom practice. It appears that our schools have been focusing most of their resources on tutoring only the left half of the brain. To develop all of a child’s capabilities we must have curricula and materials for both sides of the brain, and we must cultivate the ability to use these two different minds in a complementary way.
Two Minds In One Head
The two cerebral hemispheres in humans are specialized for different cognitive functions– the left for verbal and analytic thought, the right for intuition and understanding patterns. When the two hemispheres are surgically disconnected they each appear conscious: i.e., two separate conscious minds in one head. Not only are they separate minds, but because of their specialization they are different, not duplicate minds. These conclusions have been extensively documented.
Numerous experiments have demonstrated this specialization in normal people. The study of how the two half-brains cooperate or interfere with each other has just begun. In the normal person with intact connections between the hemispheres, are these systems smoothly integrated? Or do they alternate in control, taking turns directing behavior? Clearly, there are possibilities for both cooperation and for conflict. Although many uncertainties remain, enough is known to begin considering educational policies and: practices within the framework of what we do understand about the brain.
The verbal-analytic style is extremely efficient for dealing with the object world. Our modern technology, standard of living, and scientific achievements depend heavily on highly developed linear, analytic methods.
The holistic mode of information processing is very good for bridging gaps; we can perceive a pattern even when some of the pieces are missing. In contrast, a logical, sequential mode cannot skip over gaps! In this imperfect world, since we are usually trying to operate with incomplete information, we very badly need to have a capacity to perceive general patterns and jump across gaps in present knowledge.
Complementarity or Conflict
The analytic and holistic modes are complementary; each provides a dimension that the other lacks. Artists, scientists, mathematicians, writing about their own creativity, report that their work is based on a smooth integration of both modes. If we want to cultivate creativity it appears that we must first develop each mode, both the rational-analytic and the intuitive-holistic; second, we must develop the ability to inhibit either one when it is inappropriate to the task at hand; and finally we must be able to operate in both modes in a complementary fashion.
However, the two modes may also be in conflict; there is some mutual antagonism between the analytic and the holistic. The tendency of the left hemisphere to note details in a form suitable for expression in words seems to interfere with the perception of the overalI patterns. This mutual interference has been suggested as the reason why our brains evolved with these two systems segregated into separate hemispheres.
Cognitive Style: Individual and Cultural Differences
Difficulties may arise not only from a failure to develop lateral specialization but also from individual or cultural differences in preferred cognitive style. The middle class are likely to use the verbal-analytic mode; the urban poor are more likely to use the spatial-holistic mode. This results in a cultural conflict of cognitive style and may in part explain the difficulties of urban poor children in a school system oriented toward the middle class.
Understanding specialization of the hemispheres gives us a new perspective on valuable individual differences that are sometimes interpreted as defects. The eminent neurologist Norman Geschwind recently observed:
One must remember that practically all of us have a significant number of special Learning disabilities. For example, I am grossly unmusical and cannot carry a Tune…We happen to live in a society in which the child who has trouble learning to read is in difficulty. Yet we have all seen some dyslexic children who draw much better than controls, i.e., who have either superior visual-perception or visual-motor skills. My suspicion would be that in an illiterate society such a child would be in little difficulty and might in fact do better because of his superior visual-perception talents, while many of us who function well here might do poorly in a society in which a quite different array of talents was needed to be successful… As the demands of society change, will we acquire a new group of “minimally brain-damaged?”
Joseph Bogen has extended this observation, commenting that to the extent that our society has overemphasized analytic left-hemisphere skills at the expense of holistic right-hemisphere skills, much more is involved than the adjustment difficulties of isolated individuals. It means that the entire student body is being educated lopsidedly.
Our present understanding of the brain can contribute to developing education research and theory, and to everyday classroom practice. The purpose of these remarks is not to turn educators into brain researchers: rather it is to encourage educators of all sorts- classroom teachers, administrators, and researchers-to build on their experience, and to consider educational problems and opportunities with in the framework of what is now known about the specialization and interaction of the two halves of the brain.
TOPICS AND FACULTY
Two Ways of Knowing and Hemispheric Specialization in Normal People
DAVID GALIN, M.D., (Course Chairman) is Research Neurophysiologist and Assistant Professor in Residence, Department of Psychiatry, Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, San Francisco. His major interests concern the relationship of brain states to consciousness and the implications for education and psychiatry. He is the author of research papers on the modes of conscious functioning of the two hemispheres of the normal human brain.
Split Brains and the Human Duality
JOSEPH E,BOGEN, M.D., has been for many years a consultant in neurosurgery at the California Institute of Technology in connection with the split-brain studies. He is presently Senior Neurosurgeon of the Ross-Loos Medical Group, and Associate Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Southern California School of Medicine.
Are There Right and Left Brain Curricula? and The Duality of Mind: Implications for Educators
PAUL BRANWElN, Ph.D., is a member of the National Humanities Faculty; Adjunct Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the School Department of Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. He is author of Permanent Agenda of Man: The Humanities, The Gifted Student, and The Teaching of Science.
ROBERT E. ORNSTEIN, Ph.D., is Associate Adjunct Professor of Medical Psychology at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, San Francisco. His current research interests are the psychology of meditation, biofeedback, and the conscious functions of the two hemispheres of the brain. He is the author of The Psychology of Consciousness and the editor of The Nature of Human Consciousness.
Education and Left-handed People
JEANNINE HERRON, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute University of California, San Francisco. Her current research interest is left-handedness and cortical organization. She has written on the subject of “southpaws” in the March 1976 issue of Psychology Today.