Many believe that to be good in mathematics you need to be left-brained, or a logical and analytical thinker. Whereas if you’re right-brained, or creative and free-thinking, you are doomed to struggle with the subject. But did you know this notion has been scientifically proven false? It’s true! Different hemispheres don’t necessarily mean different thinking. That’s good news for those of you who don’t think that you can do math because you’re creative!
Math is Creative
The fact is, Mathematical thinking requires creativity. And that means visualization – seeing a problem in a different way, creatively reconceiving it, and even doing drawings to help you find the solution to the problem you’re working through. When you’re working with complex mathematics, sometimes it’s creative thinking that gets you to the logic of math – and vice versa.
Where the Myth Began
So how did the false left-brain/right-brain notion take hold in the first place? Scientist Elizabeth Waters, Associate Director of STEM Outreach at The Cooper Union in New York, did a fun Ted ED video that explored this fallacy and discussed its origins. The idea began with two neurologists from the mid-1800s, after observing patients who had problems communicating due to injuries sustained to the left side of the brain. This was supported by author Robert Louis Stevenson’s idea of a “logical” left hemisphere competing with an “emotional” right hemisphere in his famous characters Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. The idea gained steam in the 1960s, when psychobiologist and Nobel Prize winner Roger W. Sperry published a study detailing the different activities and behaviors managed by the brain’s left and right sides.
Research Disproves the Theory
This left brain versus right brain concept continued to thrive, even after it was disproved by research with patients who were missing either the right or left hemispheres of their brain yet still exhibited the believed behavior associated with them. And the theory continues to come under fire. Robert H. Shmerling, MD points out in a piece on the Harvard Health Blog that while there are certain personalities and behaviors that are associated with right- and left-brain actions, they’re not necessarily the rule. For example, right-handed children who play tennis can hit from “the other side,” so to speak. While some damage to the brain can help people lose certain kinds of functionality, if you performed a CT scan or MRI on the brain of a mathematician versus the brain of a creative, you wouldn’t see a difference.
According to Shmerling, most telling is the study performed by the University of Utah in 2013. They examined brain scans of thousands of people between ages seven and 29, dividing the brain into 7,000 regions. What did they find? Brain activity is similar on both sides, and there was no evidence of “sidedness.”
Both Sides Work Together
The truth is, the brain uses both sides to make a complete image of the world – and it’s an intricate organ with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections. Your brain is built like an information superhighway, with both sides supporting one another with every task you perform. Even when you’re teaching yourself new tasks, both sides of your brain work together as a whole to help you achieve your goal. While aspects of mathematics – such as arithmetic and computation – can require a more logical approach, sometimes what helps you to get to the answer you’re looking for is mathematical thinking.
Years ago, Mathnasium Chief Instructional Officer Larry Martinek was working with a student who was struggling with a math problem. She kept coming up against the same issue: When she’d see a math problem in a book or get assigned a problem from her teacher, she could solve it. If there was a twist to the problem, however, she struggled with it.
Martinek knew she was locked into a procedural, left-brained approach to solving problems, where she was repeating what her teacher was instructing rather than using creative mathematical thought. Thinking creatively about math will help you solve questions you never thought you’d be able to solve. Plus, uniting the skills and knowledge you’ve built will give you the confidence to approach any math problem with creativity.
Math is Worth the Effort!
Building a creative, problem-solving skill set isn’t just a helpful tool for working with mathematics. It will also help you to feel challenged by problems, which will naturally encourage your exploration of math. That, in turn, translates to the outside world. The ability to solve math problems creatively will help you as you venture into the workforce, where you’re expected to think on your feet and solve problems on the fly – not to mention, be self-sufficient with assignments and self-reliant on project direction.
This isn’t a skill you’re going to learn overnight, so don’t be too hard on yourself as you’re starting to train your brain to think differently. It can take years of practice and comes when you work with problems over and over again, using creative thinking combined with logical problem-solving techniques. Many people know how to solve a problem, but how many can contribute original thought and creativity to a problem by solving it in a wholly unique way? Those are the people who truly stand out in work and in life!
Don’t let so-called left-brained people have all the fun with math! As the Ted ED video says, solving complex math problems requires creativity, and many works of art have intricate, logical frameworks. Nurture your creativity and work with it to learn how you can adapt to solving problems in a whole new way. You might just find that you love math more than you think!