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Knocking down neuro-myths

By John Published: September 21, 2010

How many times have you heard that "right-brain" people are more creative while "left-brain" people are more logical and analytic?  If it's a figure of speech, fine. But if it's meant as a scientific description or a prescription for teaching practices, than you're headed down the rabbit hole of another neuro-myth (playing Mozart for your babies makes them brilliant!). The brain is much more dynamic than that, especially in complicated tasks such as reading. So says cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham in the Washington Post's education blog, The Answer Sheet.

In the usual mythology, the left hemisphere of the brain is logical, ordered, and analytic, and it supports reading, speech, math, and reasoning. The right hemisphere is more oriented towards feelings and emotions, spatial perception, and the arts, and is said to be more creative.

We have known for at least 30 years that this characterization is incorrect.

The language we find useful to discuss mental functions is, for the neuroscientist, a rather high level of description. That is, for a function like ''reading'' or ''music'' much of the brain gets into the act. Each is not supported by a single hemisphere.


On a related note, I'm finishing a fascinating  book now about how reading works in the brain. It's called, appropriately enough, Reading in the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene, a French psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist.

I plan to review this book for First Bell when I'm done, as well as his previous book about how the brain does math called The Number Sense.  Meanwhile, here's what Publishers Weekly writes about Reading in the Brain, via Amazon.com:

The author proposes reading as an example of neuronal recyclingthe recruitment of previously evolved neural circuits to accomplish cultural innovationsand uses this idea to explore how ancient scribes shaped writing systems around the brain's potential and limitations. (He likewise attacks modern whole language reading pedagogy as an unnatural imposition on a brain attuned to learning by phonics.)

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