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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
as a pdf file