The dichotomy between the left and right brain and its impact on society.

Within translation studies and translation theory there sits a divide. The divide is between two schools of theorists about what translation theory should focus on. Or, more specifically, whether the approach to translation should be scientifically based or literary based. This question, often described as a matter of German scholarship versus Western, anglophone scholarship, has had a big impact on translation theory. Until recently, translation in Germany, dominated by the linguistics-focused Leipzig group, focused solely on the scientific nature of translation, practically shunning literary translations. On the other hand, in the anglophone world, mainly the UK and US, literary translation has a long, rich history and translation scholarship’s focus is often on this. So, why does this matter? Well, on the whole, outside the world of translation studies, it doesn’t. It is, however, a useful example of the dichotomy between the scientific and artistic mind; a dichotomy that, in reality, doesn’t exist.

Odds are that if you approached someone on the street, completely at random, and asked them to describe a scientist and an artist you would receive quite consistent answers. Stereotypically, scientists are boring, pedantic, logical and rigid. Artists are creative, out-there, emotional and irrational. Often, in people’s minds, this comes down to a distinction between the left and right brain, logical thinking versus artistic creativity; in neuroscience this is known as hemisphericity. Often, the sides of the brain are thought of as distinct and irreconcilable; the scientist cannot utilise the right side of the brain, but nor can the artist use the left. They are polar opposites. This is also completely false.

In the 1980s, it was proven that ‘the idea [of hemisphericity] is a misleading one that should be abandoned.’ Whilst some studies have shown that, in artists’ brains, ‘the cerebellum shows both functional and structural changes in relation to drawing proficiency’, it is acknowledged that the distinction between nature over nurture is almost impossible to define; in the same study it was found that: ‘Artistic training in a more general sense appears to be related to increased [grey matter] volume’, the exact thing they believed impacted the proficiency of an artists drawing skills. As we can see, there is little to no scientific proof of hemisphericity and the individual differences in brain structure between artists and non-artists was almost impossible to detect when compared to training they received. So, hemisphericity is dead in the water scientifically, and yet, as with lots of science, this has yet to trickle down to the general public. Today, you can find management books dedicated to the left/right brain dichotomy (such as thisthis or this).

There is, therefore, an obvious disconnect with the neuroscience and the public opinion, but this, surely, is not an uncommon thing, so where’s the issue? The ostensible dichotomy between left and right brains is problematic as it causes schisms between groups of people. Whilst studies might say that there is no difference between arts and science students in logical and creative problem solving, there is that belief in the wider world, especially the workplace. As seen by the management books, and by the 3 million plus results one gets if they Google search ‘train left brain’, people who are perceived as left or right brained are advantaged/disadvantaged through the inherently incorrect biases of others. This raises an important question in businesses at all levels, from the boardrooms to the shop floors: How can people be expected to work together if one’s employees and co-workers are seen to be inherently incomprehensible to, or incompatible with, each other. So, whilst there is scientifically no difference between the ‘left-brainers’ and ‘right-brainers’ in the workplace and both ‘artistic-‘ and ‘scientific- minded’ people use both sides of their brain everyday, conflict can emerge. This is a needless and foolish thing to occur and can effect productivity and workplace atmosphere.

Furthermore, this perceived dichotomy can have serious impacts in education. The bias in the West, historically, has been on the analytical left brain; methods of education in the West focus on training pupils’ left brains in the hopes of making logical, rational and emotionless students. This is a by-product of rationalism. However, as we are coming to understand, people learn in different ways. The logical, step-by-step approach of education can severely undermine some students’ learning and, therefore, their test scores and, thus their futures. Studies have shown that students who were taught to their preferred teaching style (holistic or step-by-step), achieved ‘significantly higher test scores’. This in itself is an important point. The fact we are teaching students using an education system focused on a false brain dichotomy bias, based on science that ‘lacks adequate foundations’ and should be ‘abandoned’, is worrying; surely somewhere students are being let down.

Moreover, as is so often the case, the people being let down are minority and poor populations. Research has shown that the education system in the West (specifically the US in this study) is built to favour the more ‘logical’ white male brain. Whilst this is unsurprising considering the racially charged history of education in the West, and specifically in America, this means there is a large issue with the methods of teaching. The same study that showed students who were taught to their preferred learning style  did remarkably better on tests, focused on disadvantaged students from inner-city areas in New York. These students were, typically, non-white. This is a huge deal. The black-white test score gap in the US is an incredibly important issue that, if narrowed, could go a long way to increasing social mobility and economic improvement. At the moment, according to a 2017 study, Black and Latino students were a combined 7% of the top scores for maths compared to 33% for whites and 60% for Asians.

black white gap    As seen in this graph, there has been little to no change in the black-white test gap since 1996, despite George W. Bush passing the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’ (NCLB) in 2001. NCLB aimed to reform education by increasing qualifications teachers needed to have and increasing the importance of annual test scores, alongside other changes. Malcolm Gladwell, in a very interesting lecture, describes the mismatch problem and how it can be used to explain the stagnation in progress in education. The mismatch problem, describes, in this context, the difference between talents assumed to be necessary for a job and the actual talents necessary to succeed in said job. In an example he uses, a reduction of class size, from 22-16 students, will see at best, an average performance increase of 5 percentile points. However, improving the level of teacher can boost average performance by 10%. There is, therefore, a mismatch problem between the believed prerequisites of progress, reduction of class size, versus the actual requisites of progress, good teachers. Moreover, Gladwell goes on to explain how there is also a mismatch problem between the quality of teacher and the requirements as denoted by NCLB; being a more educated and qualified teacher does not by any metric improve teacher quality.

We see, therefore, a teaching issue within the US education system. This too is an issue faced in the UK as well; in fact, across the West, mean PISA test scores are dropping. A solution to this issue would be to eliminate the dichotomy between the scientific and artistic brain within Western education; by removing the bias in Western education on the left-sided brain that is a by-product of rationalism, students could be taught to their specific learning abilities. If this were to happen, they would improve significantly. By coupling the improved teaching methods with better teachers, the quality of education would increase significantly. The study that investigated these discrepancies concluded that presenting lessons in ‘both a global [holistic] and analytic [step-by-step] style’ with ‘varied environments’ for study would be encouraged and would increase performance.

Overall, it is plain to see that the reversal of societal boundaries and biases, from the workplace to education, would greatly improve productivity and, more importantly, equality and quality within education. These simple steps, of providing multiple methods of teaching students with good teachers, would see a dramatic increase of the quality of students and the improvement of social and economic mobility. Furthermore, the increased focus on better educated students would improve the number of intelligent  problem solvers in society, who will be essential to solving the difficult problems that humanity will encounter in the 21st century – but it all begins with ripping down the focus on a false dichotomy between the left and right sided brain, between logical scientists and emotive artists in education and society as a whole.


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