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The Myth of the Split Brain

Are you a left brain or right brain person? If you’re an animator, you don’t get to choose.

Maybe you took one of these brain tests for fun, or maybe human resources or vocational psychologists used these tests to decide your career path. These are the left brain/right brain tests. The tests use “science” to prove that your personality and skills show up in one or the other of the hemispheres of your brain. For example, if you’re a left brain person, you’ll be better at logic, languages and math; if you’re a right brain person, you’re more suited for intuitive or creative, visual tasks.

Along with phrenology, the “science” of the 19the century that attempted to pinpoint personality traits based on feeling bumps on areas of the skull, the left brain/right brain thesis is linked to real scientific research that went viral. Like phrenology, brain hemisphere or lateralization function became popularized into misconceptions, hurling memes into myth.

Forget that the very researchers who found the link between hemispheric dominance and certain aspects of language warned against making broad generalizations.

Forget that most tasks, including communication, are in areas of the brain that cross between the hemispheres.

Forget that the most important functions of the human mind, including judgment, memory, visualization and emotion belong to areas of the brain that are in both hemispheres.

The notion of hemispheric dominance and personality is wrong in so many ways.

But most importantly, the very practice of filmmaking, animation and storyboarding is dominated by people whose brains defy cranial distinction. For example, there’s Jan Pinkava, PhD. Jan Pinkava has a graduate degree in computer science (logic, “left-brain”). He also conceived and drafted early scripts for Ratatouille (language, “left-brain”, but creativity, “right-brain”), as well as wrote and directed Gerry’s Game (let’s just give up on pinpointing all the possible parts of his brain firing away).

Jan is not unique in falling off the brain hemisphere grid. In fact, I believe that anyone involved in filmmaking, from writing to storyboarding to directing, has to be “literate” in both visual and verbal skills, using logical and creative thinking. Most of the storyboard artists I’ve researched say they love the analytical problem-solving part of their job, imagining and drawing scenes that connect visually, dramatically and logically. And as a collaborative industry, filmmaking requires finely-tuned social as well as technical skills.

The fact is, most complex fields, whether in science or the arts, require people to maximize both hemispheres and all regions of their brain. Creativity is creativity regardless of whether the output is a painting or a theory. Albert Einstein (the poster boy for either logic or creativity) famously said, “Creativity is seeing what others see, and thinking what no one else has ever thought.”

Even more pernicious in this oversimplification of brain function is the linking of hemisphere to personality. People who are creative are frequently seen as being too emotional to be socially reliable, while people who are logical are deemed as lacking empathy and social adaptability. These categorizations, like the left brain/right brain divide, have a basis in a few extreme cases that get blown out of proportion and over-generalized into the lamest form of central casting.

This is why Dr. Ken Jeong, obstetrician and comic actor, gets my vote for whole-brain excellence. While I can’t vouch for his medical skills, as Mr. Chow in The Hangover series, Dr. Jeong is the best over-the-top personification of demented bad-boy behavior ever. I wonder if his vocational counselor told him to stick with his left-brain serious side.