by Jemma Davey, 3rd year UBCO psychology student and Lynne Brown, M.Ed. Owner/Director of Oak Learning Centre
Are you left or right brain dominant?
How do you learn? Are you more intuitive and creative or analytical and methodical in your thinking?
There are plenty of online quizzes these days that use these types of questions to reveal the much anticipated drum roll please … Congratulations! You are a highly organized, critical thinking left-brainer!
It is true, that there is some late realization to brain functioning, making some cognitive processes specialized to one side or the other. However, effective real-world functioning involves the contribution of both cerebral hemispheres (sides of the brain).
We all have diverse personalities and mental abilities which cannot be classified as simply this side or that. The idea of a dichotomy between ‘dominant hemispheres’, despite the convincing nature of those online quizzes, is a myth.
Our brains are plastic, which means we have the ability to renovate and rewire them. Through practice, learning and exercising important cognitive skills we can become proficient at whatever we put our minds to.
So… How do we learn?
When we learn something new, it can be analogous to a game of tug-of-war. We cannot easily win the game if we only use one hand to pull on the rope. You need to use both hands, tugging together to be successful.
Similarly, by combining skills such as reading (left hemisphere working to recognize meaningful patterns in ambiguous stimuli) with imaginative association (right hemisphere working to visualize something meaningful that can be easily connected with the topic), we are using both sides of the brain together to solidify the incoming information into our minds.
It also takes many cognitive skills to learn efficiently. Comparable to working out different sets of muscles when trying to get our bodies into shape, working on each of these skills improves your ability to learn. When these skills become strong, it takes less energy to complete complex mental tasks.
What cognitive skills should we work on?
Logic & Reasoning is the application of knowledge to understand and solve problems.
The left hemisphere of the frontal lobe is responsible for these processing skills. This includes planning, organization, logical thinking, reasoning and managing emotions.
We use logic and reasoning to understand cause and effect, to draw conclusions, and in the organization of our daily lives. Strengthening these skills helps you to reason through important decisions, set goals, produce creative ideas and solve problems.
Memory The hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala in the brain’s temporal lobe form part of the limbic system and are responsible for the processing of memory and emotion – hence the reason memories can give rise to strong emotions.
Long-term memory is the storage of information over an extended period of time. It is the warehouse of prior events and experiences. Long-term memory is both explicit (knowing that you can ride a bike) and implicit (knowing how to ride a bike).
Working memory is the taking in and holding of information while you execute various thinking tasks, such as integrating new information, following directions, mental arithmetic, organizing and sequencing.
Attention The brain continuously receives an overwhelming amount of sensory information that it must sort through and choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Researchers believe this filtering out of information is handled by the prefrontal cortex.
General attention is a composite of sub-skills, such as sustained attention (staying on task), selective attention (ignoring distractions while focusing on specific criteria) and divided attention (attending to more than one task simultaneously).
Visual Processing refers to the brain’s ability to use and interpret visual information. This is facilitated by the occipital lobe which, counter-intuitively, is located at the back of the brain. It is responsible for colour perception, visuospatial processing, determining depth, distance and discerning faces and objects.
Visual processing allows us to create mental images when reading or thinking, to move or rotate an object in our minds and to move quickly and accurately through our environments.
Auditory processing is handled by the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe. Auditory signals from the right ear travel to the left temporal lobe for processing and vice versa for the opposite side.
We use auditory processing to identify and segment sounds which are critical for reading success. In fact, studies show that 85% of people who struggle with reading have weak auditory processing skills.
Processing speed refers to the time it takes to understand and react to information we receive.
A more efficient processing speed helps us make rapid associations, discriminate between similar objects, follow directions, and make decisions quickly and accurately. Think exam conditions, zooming down the ski hill or the unexpected question in a job interview. The higher your processing speed, the more proficiently you can think and learn.
The rate of our processing speed is determined by neural pathways that form networks. Each of these pathways starts like a dusty back road that is difficult to travel on. The more these pathways are used, the more compact and developed they become. Eventually, those pathways become superhighways, making the once difficult mental exercise much easier than before.
Bonus • Research suggests that when we add movement to the time we spend learning, like standing or throwing a ball back and forth, it improves executive function and memory.
The Wrap • The next time you are trying to absorb a new piece of information, try to include other-cognitive skills to facilitate your learning experience. Instead of just reading about it, say it out loud to combine visual and auditory skills.
Trying to improve your attention? Try to tap each one of your fingers to your thumb, left to right then back again while continuing with a conversation. This is an example of divided attention.
The brain is a magnificent and complex organ that we can renovate and rewire with frequent practice and learning. The next time someone asks if you’re left or right brain dominant, you can confidently come back with your full brain explanation.
Lynne Brown, M.ED. , Owner/Director of Oak Learning Centre
Member, BC Association of School Psychologists (#163)
Member, BC School Counsellor Association
Licensed Professional Brain Trainer, PACE (Processing and Cognitive Enhancement)
Certified PAIRS Therapist (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills)