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Donkin on Work - Psychometrics

February 2005 - Brain Theory

Ten years have passed since I first encountered the theories associated with left and right-brained thinking. At the time I joined a group of executives in an event designed to identify and categorise our individual thinking preferences.

Since then I have heard these terms used so often it is tempting to assume that they no longer need any explanation. For those who would appreciate a refresher, the proposition is that the left and right hemispheres of our brains are responsible for different ways of thinking.

During the 1950s the late Roger Sperry, of the California Institute of Technology, was awarded a Nobel prize for medicine for work that advanced our understanding of the brain. After studying patients who suffered from epilepsy he concluded that the respective halves of the brain controlled two distinctive modes of thinking.

The left hemisphere, he suggested, was responsible for sequential reasoning, logical analysis and handling words. The right side was responsible for seeing things in context, recognising patterns and interpreting emotions and facial expressions.

Unfortunately his findings have led to a long standing debate about the respective merits of left and right brained thinking. That seminar all those years ago used a psychometric test to categorise everyone who attended on the basis of whether their thinking style was dominated by the right or left parts of the brain. To prove the point, the left brainers and right brainers, without knowing they had been categorised, were divided in to two teams and asked to carry out various exercises.

I can recall that the left brained people were punctual, precise and good at making lists whereas the right brainers turned up late, could not be bothered with listing anything and tended to let their ideas run off at a tangent.

The reaction of those attending was to laugh at or with the right brainers. Deep down, you could identify a subliminal but powerful message: the right brainers would make good companions at parties but if you wanted things doing properly and methodically you would need an application of left-brained method.

Such observations have prevailed in society for generations, before anyone tried to identify these different centres of thinking. Most of our school examinations, our management hierarchies, our reward systems, in fact the underlying order of western society is founded on a presumption that analytical and sequential thinking is essential for professional success. Right brained-thinking tends to be ascribed cheifly to artistic pursuits.

It makes sense. What kind of person do you want at the controls of your trans-atlantic flight or holding the scalpel over you in the operating theatre? A theatrical type? A comedian? A performance artist? I doubt it.

But according to Daniel Pink, the author of a forthcoming book, A whole New Mind, Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, the right brainers are about to have their day.

This is an exaggeration since Mr Pink is not championing one kind of thinking over another. His argument is that right-brained qualities have been neglected for too long and that increasing numbers of jobs in western society are going to demand much more right brained input in future.

He argues that demand for jobs requiring a more balanced thinking style is growing. In the US, for example, the number of graphic designers has grown tenfold in a decade so that graphic designers now outnumber chemical engineers by four to one. The same period, he notes, has witnessed exponential growth in the number of people who earn their living as writers or as composers of music.

“More Americans today work in arts, entertainment and design than work as lawyers, accountants and auditors,” he writes. Even employers that continue to value analytical thinking are seeking a more rounded skill base among their applicants so that in the US, a Master of Fine Arts is becoming a valuable degree. In fact Mr Pink goes so far as to argue that the “MFA is the new MBA.”

He lists three forces that he says are influencing these changes: abundance, automation and Asia. The sheer abundance of products, he argues, has over-satiated our material needs to such an extent that we are becoming more concerned about quality and good design. At the same time people are turning to forms of sensory stimulation. Look no further than the $2.4bn a year candle industry in the US, he writes. Why else would people buy candles when they have electric lighting?

His final force is the movement of high value technical jobs to Asia and developing countries in other parts of the world. While investment banks are farming out financial analysis to Indian MBA graduates, US aerospace engineering is being contracted out to Russia and Hungarian architects are working for Californian design companies. China is now turning out as many engineering graduates as the US each year. The difference is that Chinese wages are far lower and, increasingly, price is determining the source of traditional left-brain-dominated work.

So what does this mean? Should Noel Coward’s Mrs Worthington have put her daughter on the stage after all? The suggestion seems to be that there are much worse places to ply your trade these days.

Mr Pink would accept that his arguments need to be viewed in perspective. None of us would feel comfortable about day-dreaming traffic controllers, for example. But if you happen to be one of those people who continually subordinate any right brained tendencies to the disciplines of the left, surely there can be no harm in taking a walk on the wilder side now and again. This is where Mr Pink’s book has some useful advice. To help us engage more with our empathetic sides he includes a number of exercises.

The most convincing of these is a drawing course based on art teaching methods pioneered by a California State University art instructor Betty Edwards. Her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, trains people how to suppress information from the left side of the brain when looking at an object, thus improving the ability to draw.

Mr Pink’s book points us to various web sites designed to stimulate the right side of our brains. One of my favourites is inventionatplay.org where you can while your time away making interesting clouds and moving a ball around using cogs and springs. Not everyone will warm to the idea of laughter clubs – another of his suggestions. Yes, such places do exist, even in workplaces (see laughteryoga.org). Laughing for the sake of it is not for me but I agree with his belief that a sense of humour is workplace strength.

His broader proposition – that we are moving in to what he calls a “conceptual age” – may be worth debating. But ideas are as fluffy as those web-based clouds unless they can be grounded in reality. On Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs last week, Jonathan Miller, the writer and theatre director, appeared to be arguing the converse as he lamented his decision to abandon a career in medicine for the arts.

Medicine was “difficult to do,” he said, whereas “most of the things I have done in the arts I could have done with my right arm tied behind my back.” The result, he admitted, was a lasting sense of remorse for “having betrayed a very good mind.”

A Whole New Mind, Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, by Daniel Pink, is published in March by Riverhead Books, price $24.95.

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