I enrolled in college in 1978. On my first day, nobody mentioned a thing about orientation or advising. I was handed a list of classes and a form to write my choices.
I really wanted to major in art, but I thought I should be more responsible and major in a field in which I would find a job that paid something. I scanned the course choices with a growing dismay. Accounting? Finance? Marketing? Management? All those majors were so boring to 18-year-old me. (All but one of them still are, honestly.)
I majored in art.
Drawing and Painting and Studio Parties
It just felt right. My grandfather was a technical illustrator for the US Army before he retired. He let me use his 10 or 15 year old giant 3-ring binders from the Famous Artists School, from which I learned to draw people using eight heads as their height. The women had early 1950s hair styles, but I didn’t care. I loved sitting at his drafting table with a sketchpad, an assortment of green Venus hexagonal drawing pencils and a white Staedtler eraser. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing.
My favorite professor was a white-haired, freewheeling, affable man who called the male students “Hoss” and gave grades on drawings from A+ to A++ all the way up to A-quadruple-plus. He threw highly entertaining parties in the studio at the end of each quarter and drove an old VW bus around campus. I honed my skill drawing everything from an orange, an apple and a vase in shadow to a live nude model. Interspersed with drawing and painting and photography classes were required courses in sculpture (in which I learned to weld), graphic design (in the days before computers) and art history. I loved drawing and painting so much I officially declared painting my specialty.
The high point of my first year was when Jack (nobody called him Mister or Doctor ever) called me into his office during a class work session in acrylic painting. The office was tiny and piled high with canvases and books and art supplies. Although his door was never closed, literally, and we could always see into it when we were painting or drawing, I’d never been inside of it before.
He told me without much preface that I was very talented and should continue as a painting major. I was a little puzzled about the second part, as I had no intention of changing my major. But I was so pleased to have my joy validated. I threw myself even more into my art, especially portraiture, for which I discovered a talent.
From Teacher’s Pet to Teacher’s Disappointment
But no more than two quarters later (the university was on the quarter system rather than semesters), Jack came back from a conference and told us what he’d learned about a concept called split-brain theory.
This theory held that the right hemisphere of the brain controls creativity and intuition, while the left hemisphere is the center of rational and linear thought. Individuals in this theory tend toward one side of the brain or the other. Apparently the conference dealt with how to determine which side of the brain was dominant in students. Everyone needed to develop their right hemisphere, as most of Western society was too left-brained. He showed us a copy of the new book he’d gotten at the conference, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.
During the next class period, while we were busily painting, Jack stepped close to me and informed me that I was a left-brained thinker, giving me the distinct impression he was disappointed at that revelation. He didn’t say I should change my major or anything, but I was stunned by the pronouncement. Just a few months ago I was talented. Suddenly I was left-brained, which clearly meant I wasn’t creative. I felt betrayed and ashamed, and a lot less confident about my artistic abilities.
At the end of that term, I changed my specialty from painting to printmaking. I never took another class with Jack. I learned to carve woodblocks and linoleum blocks, how to print with silkscreen, and how to create monoprints right on sheets of metal with brayers and ink on deckle-edged paper run through a big hand-cranked press.
The theory that rerouted my college career was popular throughout the 1970s and 1980s in both academia and popular culture, according to a 2016 article in History of Psychology (vol. 19, no.1, 259–273) by Michael E. Staub of Baruch College, City University of New York.
Research was carried out on animals in the 1940s and 1950s, severing the corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. The results hinted that the two halves of the brain operated independently.
In the early 1960s, the operation, called a corpus callostomy, was performed on a consenting human subject who suffered from epilepsy. The surgery successfully alleviated his seizures, but various impairments occurred that once more indicated the halves of the brain worked independently.
One of the surgeons, Joseph Bogen, popularized the idea of the right hemisphere being responsible for creativity and musical ability. He began theorizing that the left hemisphere even inhibited creativity of the right side. Adherents of counterculture picked up the concepts to argue that the left hemisphere represented the traditional Western ways, while the right hemisphere embraced Zen meditation and other Eastern practices. Throughout the 1970s, Joseph Bogen went so far as to suggest that minority groups had greater right hemispheric activity than white people, and that indigenous people and people of color lived in cultures that emphasized creative expression and spatial skills, while deemphasizing skills such as reading or grammar.
Educators became interested in these concepts, wondering if children who had trouble learning to read had a more developed right side of the brain. Writers argued that rather than improving these students’ reading and writing abilities, they should be allowed more expression through movement and creativity. Granted, much of this emphasis led to more music and art education in schools, but the split-brain craze (“dichotomania,” to use a term coined by neuropsychologist Marcel Kinsbourne) was building upon itself based on slight evidence.
By the late 1980s, leading neuroscientists began to speak out against the claims as experiments failed to replicate results previously achieved. Biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling wrote in 1985, as quoted by Staub, that although the split-brain concepts were “still in fashion,” there was “quite simply” no evidence to support them, “none whatsoever.”
Still a Thing?
Popular books on the subject still sell, especially the one on drawing mentioned earlier. Research continues into brain structures and purpose, but suggests the brain is more plastic than the theory claims. A scan of the literature using the phrase “split brain” finds references to the 1960s experiments on the specific cohort of people who underwent the corpus callostomy. A search using the term “cerebral dominance” provides references to left- and right-handedness. Brain and cognitive research has largely moved on from social and political pronouncements about hemispheric influence.
I graduated with my art degree after a senior show of monoprints cut into 3D shapes. I haven’t painted much since, although I do draw from time to time. I do papercrafts and jewelry making when I have time. I’m not bitter about the experience, as I did enjoy my time in creative endeavors.
But I caution educators — or anyone, for that matter — about labeling someone based on a theory you just learned about and haven’t explored in depth. Consider the consequences to them. Is it worth changing their thinking about themselves — and maybe altering the course of their lives — when you could easily be wrong?