Left Brain vs. Right Brain: Differences between Characteristics and Function

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

What is the right brain vs. left brain theory? What is brain lateralization (split-brain)?

Some neuroscience researchers believe that the function of the human brain is be best explained by the concept of lateralization, meaning that the right and left hemispheres of the brain perform very different functions, and that the two communicate through their connections.

Other researchers believe that the hemisphere of the brain in charge of certain operations is more dependent upon which hemisphere is dominant for an individual.

Brain hemisphere dominance for a person often is predicted by whether he or she is right- or left-handed, and the way in which a person learns best often is categorized as left brain or right brain functioning.

What are the differences between the left brain and right brain (hemispheres)?

Many neuroscientists consider the concept of purely left-brain vs right-brain characteristics a myth. There are numerous theories and concepts that exist to explain how the right and left hemispheres of the human brain function. Many of which, have merits, and limitations.

Researchers Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry proposed the concept of lateralization. In lateralization the left hemisphere and right hemispheres of the brain have very different functions, but they communicate with each other through their physical connections. An example of lateralization is language. For most people language function is located in the left hemisphere of the brain, particularly for right-handed people. The foundation for this split-brain theory often is based on research that has been performed on patients who had their right and left hemispheres of their brain surgically disconnected to treat severe epilepsy. Split-brain theory describes the left side of the brain as giving rational orders to the right side of the brain, and the right hemisphere as giving emotionally based commands.

Brain lateralization occurs in certain brain functions. In brain lateralization, certain regions of the brain perform specific functions. Many recent studies have shown that the right and left halves of the brain mostly are used equally, which shows the functional and physical connections between both the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

Regions of the brain that are in charge of functions like memory seem to vary depending upon which hemisphere is dominant for a particular person. While people's brain becomes more left-brained or right-brained (laterlized) with age, there is no difference in physical appearance (phenotype) that is correlated to being more left- (left-lateralized) or -right-brained (right-lateralized).

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Which side of the brain is dominant (characteristics and functions)?

Differences between right brain vs. left brain characteristics and functions

While no single theory completely explains the multiple complexities of brain functions, neuroimaging techniques show some distinct differences (asymmetries) between the left and right brain hemispheres, which is referred to as lateralization.

Examples of these differences include language function in the Broca surface area (sulcus) and Wernicke area of the left side of the brain, and emotional and nonverbal functions in the right side of the brain.

The areas responsible for language tends to be on the dominant side of the brain, and opposite of the handedness of a person. For example, if you are left handed, the language function areas of your brain are more likely to be located on the right side of your brain. Moreover, if you are right-handed, your speech functions are more likely to be located on the left side of your brain.

Left-brain characteristics and functions

Left-brain functions are thought to include:

  • Understanding the sum of any situation, getting "the big picture”
  • Large muscle movements like walking
  • Sensing where one’s body is in space
  • Balance
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Emotional functioning
  • Sensing smells, sounds and taste
  • Regulating avoidance behaviors

According to neuroscience research, the left side of the brain or hemisphere:

  • Is positively stimulated by new experiences.
  • Controls the immune system.
  • Is responsible for the involuntary bodily functions, for example, breathing, heart rate, and digestion.

Left-brain and right-brain psychology further describes left-brain functions as including: the ability to pay attention to details, fine motor movement skills, and the ability to convert sounds to language and translate their meaning. Left-brain networks also are thought to control analytical/logical thinking, including a person's mathematic ability and problem solving skills.

Right brain characteristics and functions

The right brain hemisphere is thought to allow young children to understand concepts of more versus less, but the understanding of specific number values involves the left hemisphere. Other cognitive activities that tend to be governed by the right hemisphere of the brain include attention to, and processing the overall visual shape of items, understanding verbal ambiguity, and emotional and implied meanings. In terms brain development, neuroscience research indicates that until about three years if age, the right brain hemisphere tends to have the primary role (is dominant) in brain function.

Is there a right brain vs. left brain test?

While recent research often contradicts the concept of strict right-brain vs. left-brain laterality, the way a person learns most effectively may be described by what is often categorized as left-brain or right-brain functioning. Brain Works software is thought to be an effective left-brain vs right-brain test. The test uses questions in the form of written text and graphs to calculate the dominant side of a person’s brain.

How does left-brain vs. right-brain dominance effect learning styles?

Understanding which brain hemisphere is dominant in the way a person learns can help determine the most effective way to teach that person, and how they most efficiently study and  acquire information. Specifically, left-brainers are thought to be more visual learners and right-brainers more auditory learners.

REFERENCES:

Akanuma N, Reed LJ, Marsden PK, et al. Hemisphere-specific episodic memory network in the human brain: a correlation study between intracarotid amobarbital test and [18 F]FDG-PET. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2009 March: 605-622.

Brogaard B. Split brains. Psychology Today 2012 November.

Jarrett C. Why the left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die. Psychology Today 2012 June.

Kalavathi P, Senthamilselvi M, Prsath VBS. Review of computational methods on brain symmetric and asymmetric analysis from neuroimaging techniques. Technologies 2017; 5(16).

Kosslyn SM, Miller GW. Left brain, right brain? Wrong. Psychology Today 2014 January.

Mikolajczyk T, Moldovan F, Ciobanu I, et al, 2016. Brain research using computer test. Procedia Technology 2016; 22: 1113-1120.

Nielsen JA, Zielinski BA, Ferguson MA, Lainhart JE, et al. An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging. PLoS ONE August 2013; 8(8): e71275.

Ries SK, Dronkers NF. Choosing words: left hemisphere, right hemisphere or both Perspective on the Lateralization of Word Retrieval 2016 January; Wiley Online Library.

Sperry RW. Hemisphere deconnection and unity in consciousness. American Psychologist 1968; 23: 723-733.

Tatera K. Left-brained vs. right-brained? Myth debunked. Brain and Body 2015 November.

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Reviewed on 9/25/2017
References
REFERENCES:

Akanuma N, Reed LJ, Marsden PK, et al. Hemisphere-specific episodic memory network in the human brain: a correlation study between intracarotid amobarbital test and [18 F]FDG-PET. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2009 March: 605-622.

Brogaard B. Split brains. Psychology Today 2012 November.

Jarrett C. Why the left-brain right-brain myth will probably never die. Psychology Today 2012 June.

Kalavathi P, Senthamilselvi M, Prsath VBS. Review of computational methods on brain symmetric and asymmetric analysis from neuroimaging techniques. Technologies 2017; 5(16).

Kosslyn SM, Miller GW. Left brain, right brain? Wrong. Psychology Today 2014 January.

Mikolajczyk T, Moldovan F, Ciobanu I, et al, 2016. Brain research using computer test. Procedia Technology 2016; 22: 1113-1120.

Nielsen JA, Zielinski BA, Ferguson MA, Lainhart JE, et al. An evaluation of the left-brain vs. right-brain hypothesis with resting state functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging. PLoS ONE August 2013; 8(8): e71275.

Ries SK, Dronkers NF. Choosing words: left hemisphere, right hemisphere or both Perspective on the Lateralization of Word Retrieval 2016 January; Wiley Online Library.

Sperry RW. Hemisphere deconnection and unity in consciousness. American Psychologist 1968; 23: 723-733.

Tatera K. Left-brained vs. right-brained? Myth debunked. Brain and Body 2015 November.

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