Left Brain, Right Brain

by Joe Gillespie — Nov 1, 2003

Where I usually write about the 'right' and 'wrong' in Web page design, this time it's going to be slightly different.

'Right' and 'left!'

If you read these articles regularly you will probably have noticed that I go out of my way to make the distinction between 'designers' and 'programmers' when it comes to Web page design. These are very loose terms but roughly, I think of the 'designer' as the person who carries out the more creative side of the work – the layout, general look and feel and presentation. The 'programmer' takes care of the markup, scripting and coding and more technical aspects.

"Here!", you say, "I do it all myself."

Okay, that's not a problem, but it is unlikely that you excel at both disciplines. You will probably be good at one part and get by with the other. One skill will dominate and it's quite natural. Problems arise when you are bad at both!

You've probably heard the terms 'right brainer' and 'left brainer' and not thought too much about the implications but this is exactly why some people are better at 'creative' thinking and others at 'logical' thinking – and it's all in the genes!

Split personality

brain box top captionright brainbrain boxleft brain

brain box bottom caption

The human brain is indeed divided into two halves, referred to as the 'left hemisphere' and the 'right hemisphere'. What is slightly confusing is that the right hemisphere is connected to the nervous system on the left side of the body and the left hemisphere to the right but don't worry about that 'crossover' for the minute.

The right and left sides of the brain do different jobs. The left side processes language, analytical thinking and the ability to put things in sequence. It's also good at making associations between symbols and abstract ideas, for counting and mathematics. For most people, the left side of the brain is dominant just as most people are right handed.

The right hemisphere is more involved with intuition, spatial awareness and putting thing together to form wholes – the opposite of analysis, in fact. It tends to work in terms of images and feelings instead of using words or numbers – but has little concept of time or rationality.

Usually, the two halves of the brain work as a team. The hemispheres are connected by something akin to the IDE cable that goes between your computer's mother board and hard drive. It's called the corpus callosum and allows intercommunication of data between right and left sides.

Sometimes the right brain sends the left a crazy idea like, "It would be nice to jump off this cliff and soar like a seagull". The left brain quickly responds with some very good reasonsnot to jump off the cliff. As left brains are usually the more dominant, common sense prevails.

The opposite can happen too. In realising that it is cold outside, the left brain wants you to put on a warm coat and you open the cupboard door. Faced with the choice of a brown coat or a blue one, lefty doesn't care too much but when you reach for the brown one, right brain kicks in and points out that the rest of your clothes are blue and brown doesn't go with blue. The right brain can see the overall picture and the left one doesn't.

Although the two brain halves work together and the left side is usually more dominant, that is not always the case. In some people, the right brain is more dominant than usual. When this happens, the person is less constrained by rational though and prone to more holistic, divergent ways of thinking. In extreme cases, they may also be left handed. Left hand, right brain, remember the crossover effect I mentioned earlier?

It's not uncommon for right brainers to 'lead' with their left eye or left foot as well as preferring their left hand. Although the cause is usually hereditary, left-handedness was severely frowned upon in earlier times and people who were naturally left-handed forced to use their right. Of course, such interference with nature usually led to problems afterwards ranging from dyslexia to schizophrenia.

Left handed

It is no coincidence that 'right' means both the side of the body with the dominant hand and 'correct'. The Anglo-Saxon word 'riht' meant 'straight' or 'just' whereas the word 'lyft' meant 'weak' or 'worthless'. In French, the word for 'left' is 'gauche' which also means 'awkward' and the word for 'right' is 'droit', meaning 'good' or 'proper'. It's no wonder that lefties had a hard time.

Out of interest, here are some famous left handers:

  • Leonardo DaVinci
  • Michelangelo
  • Raphael
  • Picasso
  • Lewis Carroll
  • Charlie Chaplin
  • Judy Garland
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Albert Einstein
  • Paul McCartney
  • Jimi Hendrix

Now, are you beginning to see the connection – Mona Lisa, Foxy Lady? Okay, Albert Einsein doesn't seem to belong there, but just look at him, he doesn't look like your average scientist! Although not all right brainers are left handed, most left handers seem to be right brainers.

Creative vs. Logical

So now, back to Web design and you can see why some of us are better at artistic, creative things and others better at words, numbers and logical deduction. At their extremes, you will see wild flights of fantasy, totally void of rhyme or reason and boring, grey pages that are meticulously hand-coded.

But, there is another factor that comes in, another brain that doesn't figure in the human psyche, the computer. With a computer, and appropriate software, the complete right brainer can realise his or her flights of fancy without going near the source code. The utter left brainer can apply a few Photoshop filters and come up with something that is not quite so yawn inspiring. The computer can help 'normalise' both the extreme fantasist and the fundamentalist coder. That's why such total polarisation is rarer than it might be otherwise.

So where does all this get us? Well, just as trying to 'correct' left-handedness is fundamentally wrong, my message is, "Don't fight it!" Use your natural abilities to their fullest.

If you are aware of your shortcomings, and that is a major step on its own, you will have the (right brainer) overall vision that shows that you need better markup/scripting than you can handle yourself. Or, (left brainer) it will seem logical to get some 'visual' help with your presentation.

Who knows what will happen, they say opposites attract!

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