Skip to main content

Annoying urban legends: language and pop psychology

Okay, I want to rant and vent about this pop pscyhology stuff that keeps popping up. As a linguist and cognitive psychologist, I find references to "left brain / right brain" annoying, and this stuff pops up on the Internet, in business or marketing contexts, in sermons, on TV, etc. This is pop psychology because it is a grossly inaccurate distortion of what psychology and neuroscience tells us about differences between the two brain hemispheres, and is always misapplied. It is wrong for these reasons.

1. You use all of your brain all the time, not just half of it (unless you're a politician or TV/movie celebrity). Just because the whole think doesn't light up under an MRI or CT scan at a given moment doesn't mean the rest is dormant; it's working, too, just at a lower level. And there's more than the left and right cerebral cortices (upper advanced mammalian brain) that this pop theory refers to. There's the front brain (frontal corex), which is neither left nor right, where working memory, decision making, executive control of conscious function, attention, and such take place. And there are lower brain structures (less advanced, evolutionarily) for a lot of non-conscious and automatic brain functions go on, as well as the limbic system and other stuff that regulate basic emotions, formation of long-term memories, etc. And don't even say we use 10% of the brain. Not true (unless you're a politician) - that's a pop psychology / new age distortion of few old neuroscience studies; no neurologists never actually reported or claimed that we only use 10% of the noggin.

2. There is allocation of different functions to different hemispheres (not "brains" - let's use proper terminology). But nothing so simplistic as this pop psych stuff. It's not true that the "right brain" is musical or artistic, or that only the left is logical and analytical or houses language. These various functions and abilities are distributed throughout different brain regions. According to recent studies, as in the journal Nature Neuroscience a couple of years ago, musical notes and their affective qualities are processed in the right, but note sequences are processed in the left (it looks for regular patterns and sequences in the music). And many language functions are in both hemispheres (read next point). Some grammatical functions are handled by the left - syntax (word order and hierarchy), morphology (word formation, conjugation, inflection), and phonology (sound structure of language). But that's only true for about 90% of the population, i.e., most of the right-handed people. There's a minority of people, including lefties, where these functions are in the right, or distributed across both hemispheres.

3. Yes, the right side does its share of language processing and ability. This has been known in psychology for a long time, and there's plenty of research on this. This is nothing new, and research on this (and controversy over some points) is on-going. For most people, the systematic components of language - syntax, morphology, phonology - are housed in the inferior temporal gyrus (Wernicke's area), but that may have more to do with the fact that they involve learned, automated skills and procedures, skill based and procedural memory systems, and are related to other skill based abilities (i.e., complex learned skills) that are in nearby cerebral regions (at least acc. to Prof. Ullman at Georgetown Univ.), and not because langauge is "logical" or "analytical".

There's a lot more to langauge than those components, though, like lexicon (the words you know), semantics (word meanings) and pragmatics (interpretation of words and utterances in context). The right hemisphere handles things like general sentence or utterance intonation (and its affective or implied meanings), irregular morphology, interpretation of metaphors and non-literal word meaning, integration of linguistic information, discourse level language structure, etc. It's even been proposed that some basic syntax is handled by the right - basic word order (linear precedence) versus more complex hierarchical syntax. And when it comes to how word meanings and concepts are stored and accessed (the mental lexicon and related components), these are distributed all over the brain. This area in fact is quite complex, and still poorly understood.

[To be continued...]


Popular posts from this blog

Gossip, accusation and spiritual warfare

Paul once wrote to the Corinthians, “For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder” [1 Cor. 12:20]. Gossip is diagnosed as a serious spiritual problem, not a harmless form of conversation and social entertainment, as many in the secular world would view it.God views it differently. Gossip is the opposite of the love and grace that God wants to display in our lives.
Gossip is often exaggerated (and thus, untrue), or outright fabricated. Even church people engage in gossip in a seemingly sanctimonious guise (“We really ought to pray for X – you wouldn’t believe what he told me yesterday!...”). Whether secular or “christianized,” gossip betrays trust. “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” [Prov. 11:13]; “A perverse person stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates clo…

Evangelicalism's gradual demise

The term "evangelical" was popularized by Martin Luther ("evangelisch" in German), which meant a follower of the gospel. The term was originally a very good and useful term, as it referred to someone who believed in a religion based on faith and following the teachings of Christ, rather than man-made religious rules. It was meaningful enough but also broad enough to encompass a general theological orientation and religious lifestyle. It could include and accommodate somewhat different views or interpretations of Christian belief, including those who focused more on the grace, spirituality and lifestyle of Christ. As such, it was not the exclusive property of one religious group or theological orientation. The meaning has been generally positive in modern church history.

However, in recent decades the term has been hijacked by fundamentalists who insist on a narrow interpretation of the term, insisting on a set of specific theological beliefs, while ignoring the Ch…

Portraits of Christ: John's gospel

John’s Gospel opens with a fascinating prose prologue in chapter 1 that essentially summarizes the themes of the entire book. It introduces Jesus in a manner that emphasizes his deity, then John the Baptist who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, and finally, the spiritual essence of Jesus’ public ministry and outreach, and his ultimate rejection.
John begins with the language of creation, showing that Jesus was always with the Father, was involved in creation, and was thus eternal. John describes him as the Word (logos in Greek), which conveys multiple meanings. For Jewish people, it meant the Scriptures, meaning that Jesus himself is the ultimate revelation of God to us, because he himself is God, more so that the written word of God (the Old Testament, at this time). It also reminds Jewish readers of how God spoke the world into existence in Genesis 1, as well as divine wisdom personified in the wisdom literature such as Proverbs (the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 1-10). …