Ask Larry: Math and the Left-Brained Misconception

By Larry | Added Jan 14, 2015



Dear Larry,

No matter how hard I work to improve my grades in math, I just can’t seem to understand it. I’m a right-brained creative person, and I don’t think my brain is wired to understand math. What advice can you give someone like me to survive math classes until high school is over?


~Melanie R., 8th grader


Melanie, I understand your dilemma, and I want you to know that you’re not alone in thinking that a creatively inclined mind doesn’t mix well with math. It is a common misconception that math is a strictly left-brained activity, reserved only for the structural, logical side of our brain and not the creative side.

This idea that only left-brained people are talented at math is a myth—math has more than one component. When you describe math as a left-brained activity, you’re talking about the activity of arithmetic—doing computation. That type of math is very strongly a left-brained activity.

Mathematical thinking, on the other hand, requires using the right side, the creative side, of the brain. This often involves visualizing a problem, creatively re-conceiving it, and doing drawings.

Many years ago, I had a student say to me, “Larry, whenever a problem is like the one in the book or like the ones the teacher shows me, I can do it fine. But whenever they put a twist on a problem, I can’t do them anymore.” This student was clearly locked into a very procedural, left-brained approach to problem-solving. She was parroting back what the teacher told her, rather than engaging in creative thought and mathematical thinking to solve the problem.

Instead of memorization, parroting, and paper and pen reliance, focus on improving your numerical fluency and mental math ability, and on developing number sense, so that you have the structure you need to approach math problems in a way that activates your creative side.

As time goes on, you will be able to attack questions you never seen before. You will be able to bring together all the skills and knowledge you have accumulated and creatively approach problems with confidence.

Developing and engaging in creative problem solving won’t just help you “survive” your math classes, it will help you to feel challenged by them. I suspect for an intelligent, creative person such as yourself, this will lead to further interest and exploration in all things mathematical. 

Additionally, this type of thinking will serve you well beyond your math classes. As students grow up and move into the workforce, they find that employers are looking to hire employees who can think on their feet, who don’t have to be led by the nose and told what to do next. You can’t learn that type of thinking overnight; it comes from years of encountering and interacting with problems using right-brained thinking as well as a mastery of left-brained problem-solving techniques. Many people can solve a problem, but it’s those who can contribute original thought and creativity to the problem who truly stand out in work and in life.

Don’t assign math to the left-brained folks and let them have all the fun! Be proud of your creativity and use it to work with you in problem-solving, rather than using it as an excuse to distance yourself from math.

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