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The Brain is Not Simply Split into Two Totally Separate Halves, and Other Lessons on Skepticism

left brain right brain WRONG

One year ago, I wrote an article that skewered the infographic that one website had been sending to the public. I showed the evidence that contradicted what was claimed, and I ended up busting two persistent myths in that article. The first myth was that the two hemispheres of the brain (right and left) were radically different sections of the brain; the second myth was that people have distinct learning styles, which make some people “visual learners,” while others are “audial learners,” etc. I don’t mind explaining this stuff to laypeople, but there’s something unnerving about the email I got from one of the creators of the infographic.

I was at my computer and my mouse started wandering. I admit it – I was bored at work. I decided to check my skeptikai-mail. Sure enough, there was an eye-catching letter waiting to be blogged about.

Subject: “Left Vs. Right Brain” Infographic
Date: Tue, January 08, 2013

Hello,

I’m a part of a team that produces infographics, and I just wanted to thank you for posting one of ours. We’re so glad you enjoyed it!

I also wanted to reach out because we were hoping you could add a link back to the original source of the graphic. We feel our blog may be a great resource to your readers, plus, you may find more infographics that you’ll want to post.

Here’s your post along with its original source:

“Left Vs. Right Brain” http://skeptikai.com/2012/01/19/left-brain-vs-right-brain-learning-styles/

If you have any questions, please let me know.

Thanks for your time and Happy New Year!

Best,

Miriam

The email in its entirety was very nice (though, come on, she didn’t even get the name of my article right). I appreciated the New Year sentiments as well. But still, we’re talking about the infographic that keeps those annoying myths alive. It’s infographics like that which make it harder for me to focus on other topics that interest me. I don’t want to have to write about the same busted myth over and over… but thanks to people like her, it looks like I’ll need to.

Half a year after my article came out in January 2012, there was an interesting piece from i09.com. It aptly concluded like this:

I suppose the logical left-brain, creative right-brain myth has a seductive simplicity about it. People can ask – which kind of brain have I got? They can buy an app to target their weaker half. They can categorise languages and people as right-brained or left. It’s tricky to combat that belief system by saying the truth is really more complicated. But it’s worth trying, because it would be a shame if the simplistic myth drowned out the more fascinating story of how our brains really work.

I agree. Learning about the brain is fascinating, and in many cases the truth is even more interesting than the fiction. This is why my email response described all the ways in which I considered her to be academically lazy and irresponsible. I have never reproduced an email on my blog before, but I decided to do so this time, because I feel that it has some good lessons for science in general, and something that I’d hope the readers of this blog can enjoy and learn from.

Date: Wed, Jan 09, 2013

Hello Miriam,

Thank you very much for your kind sentiments and sincere inquiry. And you are correct – I did enjoy the infographic. Unfortunately, it was not for the reason intended.

I feel disinclined to link to your infographic for the simple reason that it would potentially drive more traffic towards what I dedicated my entire blog article to exposing as pseudoscientific nonsense.

…Obviously you did not actually read it.

In fact, it is the scientifically careless and irresponsible creation of such infographics that allows pop-psychology myths to plague science communicators like myself every day. The recent movie “Limitless” (2011) was just another example of how another myth snuck into our popular culture; and since it was a popular film, it gave the myth further life. That is, the premise that we only use 20% of our brain, so a pill that can unlock the other 80% makes us superhuman. As someone who is responsible for communicating information about the brain, I would hope you know that we use 100% of our brains, and it’s even incredibly active while we sleep.

As I explained in my article, “I have enjoyed some of the articles I read on OnlineCollege.org, but this is really quite pathetic.” Indeed, the fact that you so obliviously emailed me despite my lengthy criticism against your infographic just reflects the same lack of scientific rigour with which you obviously created the infographic in the first place.

I feel no discontent with you personally, Miriam, as I have no idea how much of the infographic you are personally responsible for, and presumably this was [not] a diabolic plot to preserve pop-psych myths… but because of your email, you represent the Online College website, and I can only express my lack of satisfaction to you now.

This feeling of being unsatisfied is what the roots of skepticism are all about – doubting the facts, asking the questions, and checking the evidence. You shouldn’t be satisfied until the claim you hear reflects the evidence for it, and not some baseless myth that laypeople unfortunately buy into because yet another seemingly reputable source said so. Skepticism is a feeling that you should have when you hear something incredible so that you don’t just believe everything you hear, and it’s a method that you should use whenever you are disseminating information to the public. This is especially true for a website called “Online College,” which is supposed to educate students. Perhaps it would also be in your best interest to show the URLs of your sources, instead of just the names of the sites at the bottom.

Let me be clear: Your infographic was gorgeous. It was also wrong.

I know, because I examined it with a much-needed dose of skepticism.

With this in mind, I will keep my eyes open for infographics of yours in the future. But hopefully next time, there is a greater emphasis on the info, and not so much on the graphics.

-ryo

 

[February 21 update: Sadly, a few weeks after I posted this article, I got a link from someone who took the title image I used from last year’s article and totally ran with it in the wrong direction. She completely missed the point of the picture and obviously didn’t actually read my piece. I wish she had picked up the title image of this article instead, but I can only assume she didn’t read past the headline.]

Why doesn't anyone read anymore

This is getting embarrassing

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