Skeptical About Left- and Right-Brain Learning

Frank B. WithrowBy Frank B. Withrow

At one time I was the chief speech pathologist at Washington University in St. Louis Medical School. Back then, we believed that there were fixed parts of the brain that were devoted to specific actions. This is true to a certain degree, but today we believe that different parts of the brain can take over from damaged parts of the brain. Modern technology has enabled us to learn much more about the brain and how it functions and how it can recover after damage.

Brain with lobes color-coded: frontal lobe (pink), parietal lobe (green) and occipital lobe (blue)We know that people with aphasia can often recover to an amazing degree. President Eisenhower recovered enough from a stroke that he spoke well enough to win reelection. Patricia Neal recovered from her stroke sufficiently well enough to appear in television programs as an actress.

I become somewhat skeptical when we emphasize right- and left-brain skills and talents. What we have learned about right and left-brain function is generally true but not absolutely fixed in concrete. Congresswoman Giffords appears to me, from my obviously casual observation, to have an expressive aphasia. This does not mean however that other parts of her brain cannot take over for her speech as she recovers. The damaged areas are gone forever, but other parts may be able to take over.

I have asked good musicians, “How do you know what to play? Do you read music in your mind’s eye? Do you hear the music in your mind’s ear? If you play the piano, how does the music come from your mind to your hands and the piano keys?” We know some musicians can’t read music. It is just inherently in their minds. We know other musicians who are very good but have to have the musical score in front of them. We know that blind musicians are driven by internal brain functions. We also know that there are Braille musical sheets.

The brain is an amazingly flexible control center that can be trained to do marvelous things. I once worked with a boy who died when he was twelve years old. When he was first born he was not expected to live for 24 hours. He was very frail, but all of his body parts functioned. When we first saw him at age six, his speech sounded very much like a chipmunk and even though he told long stories, waving his arms to emphasize points, it was not understandable. We began working on his speech and language. By the time he died he was working at grade level. He died of mumps.

The Medical School did an autopsy on his brain. It was very difficult to trace traditional parts of his brain. In fact, it appeared as if his brain had been scrambled by an eggbeater. Yet he had a normal IQ, and by the time he died his speech and language were very good. He was reading and writing at an appropriate level. He was eager to become a Boy Scout and had been working hard to pass the various tests in Scouting,

I say this because I want to caution against putting too much faith in classifying people as right- or left-brained. Yes, there are traits that can be assigned to right and left, but the brain is so flexible that functions can be transferred from the damaged parts to other parts that serve the individual well. A highly verbal left-brained individual may also be a great dancer, singer, artist or actress.

The brain is a wonderfully flexible and marvelous thing.

8 Responses

  1. Thanks for this post, Frank. I live in Tucson and as a result of what happened to Gabby Giffords we have heard a lot about the brain and it’s amazing ability to compensate in some areas.

    On a somewhat related topic, I’m curious to hear your take on learning styles and the fact that some classify people as VA or K learners (etc). There has been much debate on this lately and I find I am changing my mind about how useful they are.

    • There is an interesting article in Neurology Now on Aphasia this month. It points out that positive attitudes are great helps in recovery. That is one of the reasons that I think Gabby has a good chance for a good recovery. My experience in working with aphasic adults and children is that a driving personality can make a wonderful recovery. Both the therapist and the family must support the aphasic patient.

    • Jan I believe we may all have different styles of learning and that some of us master our own style better than others. Stan Musial was a kenisthetic learner and did better than almost anyone else. Great musicians are auditory learners whereas artist are visual learners. On the other hand I was recently with a man that has developed amazing new drugs and he believes he thinks completely out of the box. He believe he thinks in a nontraditional whole manner. My guess is that we all use a variety of sensory images and that some of us are more talented than others in various sensory imagining.

  2. As with right- and left-brain classifications, the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (and digital) learning styles are just convenient aids to understanding and should not be taken too literally. Everyone uses both sides of their brains (unless parts destroyed), and all people use each of VAK(D) at times.

    I’ve seen people suggest that using all styles in learning for all people works best. It’s sort of like only using one muscle all of the time will tire out that muscle. You’ll just almost automatically allow other muscles to help out.

    The VAK classification also applies to communications to some extent. If you speak visually (I see, viewpoint, etc.) to a visual communicator, they’re supposed to understand you better. In my experience, people aren’t usually so readily pigeon-holed. If I take the time to scatter lots of words from all three areas throughout my missives, they come alive and become much more powerful. It takes time, for me anyway, so I don’t do it often, but it really works when your message must be really powerful.

  3. Thanks for this article, Frank. In the same line, on May 18, 2011, the Agalma Foundation hosted a conversation where Prof. François Ansermet (psychoanalyst), Prof. Pierre Magistretti (neuroscientist) and Prof. Mejìa Quijano (linguist) discussed brain plasticity and how experiences modify the brain and language perception from the view points of their their disciplines:

    Fondation Agalma – Entretien avec Claudia Mejìa Quijano. Uploaded by FondationAgalma on June 17, 2011 (the video is captioned in French, but you can request an automatic translation of the captions by hovering on the CC symbol -> Translate Captions Beta; or you can translate them yourself at if you dislike automatic translations).

  4. I am in agreement with Harry that models around left and right are no more than just that, models. The reality of interdependency is too complex for most to understand without them. Norman Doidge does a great job of explaining the ability of the brain to remap function in his book “The brain that changes itself”. Another great resource for stories of mirror neurons and how the brain can rewire itself is by V.S. Ramachandran in his book “The Tell-Tale Brain”. Truly fascinating science.


  5. As to the brain plasticity and its capacity to rewire itself, rightly pointed out in the post and comments, a personal anecdote. In 1996 my husband had a stroke in the left part of his brain and was labeled by the doctors as deeply aphasic on the basis of MRI and the say-so of a speech therapist he didn’t get along with: he had told me which part of her anatomy he intended to shove up the pieces of her “wooden puzzles for toddlers” next time she brought him one – tough job being speech-therapist to a language worker like he was.

    Nevertheless, in the following years, almost until his death in 2001, he went on producing a regular book review for an Italian weekly, which he’d dictate me (he had a laptop, which we used to communicate immediately after his stroke when his articulation was still strongly impaired, but having always been a 2 forefingers typist, typing a whole article with just the left one was a pain in the neck, especially as he was basically right-handed).

    However, the “deeply aphasic” label remained in his medical records, which was ironic. True, his language capacities had been affected, but for reception: some people have “tunnel vision” after a stroke, he had a kind of “tunnel audition”, which made it hard for him to follow a conversation with several people. But otherwise, his understanding and production, both oral and written, seemed unaltered in Italian, English and French. So “deeply aphasic” was a bit of a sweeping statement, applied to him.

    It’s thanks to him that I got interested in accessibility, both physical and digital. What strikes me in digital accessibility is that it also allows – and incites – you to offer materials for various learning ways. Take multimedia:
    If you caption a video tutorial so as to make it accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, you also produce a written transcript which, on some platforms, gets automatically offered to the users. Users can choose whether to read the transcript or view the video, as they prefer.
    For for the brain picture in Frank’s post above, the “alt attribute” (alternative description voiced by screen readers, necessary to ensure access to non-text info by the blind and people with print disabilities) reads: “Brain with lobes color-coded: frontal lobe (pink), parietal lobe (green) and occipital lobe (blue)”: people using a screen reader can choose to have have alt descriptions voiced or not.

    Etc. Addressing the various perception channels, as Harry says, “takes time (…), but it really works when your message must be really powerful”. And tech progress is fortunately making it less time-consuming. Take captioning, where the time-consuming and expensive part is transcribing: while the Google voice recognition seems not to have progressed much since 2009, when they first offered it for auto-captioning YT videos in English, but others are also working on it. In an interview by Pierrette Weissbrodt (Le Temps, June 24, 2011), Temitope Ola, co-founder and CEO of Koemei, said that they offer accurate automatic transcript of English audio/video for CHF 0.20-0.50/minute – so somewhat less in US currency.

    Most of these voice-recognition efforts are concentrating on English presently, because this is the main lingua franca. But English is particularly rotten for voice recognition (also by human foreigners learning it) because of the high proportion of one-syllable words and the importance of pitch and other factors involved in making sense of English speech. So doing the same for other languages in future might prove easier: there is even a crude for-free iPhone voice recognition app: the result is totally crazy for English (and French), but surprisingly decent for Italian.

  6. Many years ago I worked with a 40 year old lawyer who in an accident had his entire left brain removed. He recovered his speech and language. I am not sure I would hire him as my lawyer, but for all practical purposes he functioned amazingly well. My experience leads me to believe that recovery is partially a factor of the drive a patient has. I have also had patients who appeared to have minor damage but completely gave up.

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