April 8th, 2008

Human plasticity: left/right front/back brain

Dichotomies such as left brain vs. right brain are understood to be interesting concepts, but too simplistic in describing what is an unbelievably complicated and still very mysterious organ: the brain. Of course, it’s the brain itself doing the studying, in an ongoing “know thyself” effort that is profoundly human.

The left/right brain dichotomy is fun for games and parlor tricks, such as this test of the turning dancer. Do you see the silhouette revolving clockwise or counterclockwise? I always see it clockwise and cannot ever reverse it, no matter how hard I try.

Supposedly, this makes me strongly right-brained, intuitive and feeling and artistic rather than logical and and mathematical and linear. But most of the other facile internet tests I’ve taken—and I’ve taken quite a few—tend to put me squarely in the “in-between” category, evenly balanced between left and right brain, which feels just about right to me.

Oops, I said “feel.” Too right-brained. Let me regroup: my analysis of my life history suggests that I have an unusual balance between the right and left hemispheres of my brain.

There, that’s better. And appropriate, I suppose, for one such as I, who’s looked at political life from both sides now.

The left/right brain theories were hatched from studies of people who had various sorts of brain injury. But the undamaged brain really works as a whole, and there is a great of communication between the two halves. Research appears to show that the more important differences between the sides involve processing, with the left attending to details and the right integrating the big picture. And individual variations in the location of different centers of function abound.

What’s more, the brain is surprisingly—and most wonderfully—plastic. When injury occurs, other areas can often take over. That’s why it can be possible for people such as my mother to recover in whole or part from a stroke, and why the course of a person’s recovery is unpredictable.

I’ve often wondered whether my mother’s unusual left/right history has contributed to the fact that her stroke recovery has been relatively good. My mother is naturally left-handed; she used to play tennis and do all her strength activities with her left hand. But she was born in an era in which lefties were forcibly switched, and so as a very young child she had to learn to write and eat with her right hand. This caused no end of grief; if you were to ask her about it even now, she’d let you know how difficult it was and how it caused the lifelong problems she has (always good for a gentle teasing) in telling left from right.

I have my doubts about my mother’s theory. I think that she may just naturally have a brain with less lateralization than is the norm. There’s a certain scientific basis for this notion of mine—it turns out that approximately 20% of lefties have language functions on both sides of the brain.

Righties are far more predicable in that respect; their language functions are almost always located in the left hemisphere. As a proudly unchanged lefty myself (I want to make it clear I’m talking about handedness, not politics), I have no idea whether I have language on the right side of the brain, as approximately 60% of lefties do; or on the left, resembling approximately 20% of lefties; or bilaterally, as previously mentioned. I do know that I’ve always had a knack for integrating the intuitive and the rational, the body and the mind, the creative and the linear.

I’ve also always been interested in news of brain function, as well as research on brain and body laterality. And so this article on the relation between a rare disease known as FTD, or frontotemporal dementia, and artistic ability, caught my eye (the laterality involved in this disease is not the common right/left brain dichotomy, however, it’s front/back).

The piece explores the case of Dr. Anne Adams, a Canadian scientist who became an artist as she was developing her brain problems. She became fascinated with the music of the composer Maurice Ravel, especially his “Bolero,” and painted a complex work based on that score.

It is probably not coincidental that, when composing “Bolero,” Ravel (unbeknownst to Dr. Adams, and to Ravel himself) was in the early stages of the same rare disease that was later to hit Adams. Both were attracted to repetition and order, says FTD expert Dr. Bruce Miller:

‘Bolero’ is an exercise in compulsivity, structure and perseveration,” Dr. Miller said. It builds without a key change until the 326th bar. Then it accelerates into a collapsing finale.

Dr. Adams, who was also drawn to themes of repetition, painted one upright rectangular figure for each bar of “Bolero.” The figures are arranged in an orderly manner like the music, countered by a zigzag winding scheme, Dr. Miller said. The transformation of sound to visual form is clear and structured.

Some of Dr. Adams’ work can be found at at this site. It demonstrates those qualities of order and structure, as well as repetition.

The paintings vary quite a bit in their artistic appeal. For example, there’s this, which I rather like and find pleasantly decorative:


And this, which I don’t much care for:


The wonder, though, is that this ability in Dr. Adams was previously unexpressed prior to her developing the progressive dementia which later killed her. She had previously “dabbled” in drawing when young, but now it took on an obsessive and driven quality. Dr. Miller has an explanation for the change in abilities and motivation:

We now realize that when specific, dominant circuits are injured or disintegrate, they may release or disinhibit activity in other areas. In other words, if one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger.”

Thus some patients with FTD develop artistic abilities when frontal brain areas decline and posterior regions take over, Dr. Miller said.

It’s a sort of figure-ground effect. Dr. Adams lost a lot, but at least she gained something in return, although I can’t say it seems to have been a fair exchange. Her art obviously meant a great deal to her, however, and I hope it helped sustain her and her family through the long years as the going got rougher, and then rougher still.

Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Miller’s study involving Anne. You will notice there is hard data to underscore the development of other regions of her brain as some of them atrophied:

Paintings from AA’s artistic peak revealed her capacity to create expressive transmodal art, such as renderings of music in paint, which may have reflected an increased subjective relatedness among internal perceptual and conceptual images…Later paintings, achieved when AA was nearly mute, moved towards increasing photographic realism, perhaps because visual representations came to dominate AA’s mental landscape during this phase of her illness. Neuroimaging analyses revealed that, despite severe degeneration of left inferior frontal-insular, temporal and striatal regions, AA showed increased grey matter volume and hyperperfusion in right posterior neocortical areas implicated in heteromodal and polysensory integration. The findings suggest that structural and functional enhancements in non-dominant posterior neocortex may give rise to specific forms of visual creativity that can be liberated by dominant inferior frontal cortex injury.

As a right/left sort of person, I like to make connections between the arts (especially poetry) and other aspects of life, as you may have noticed from previous reading here. So I’ll close with an excerpt from the Wordsworth poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

Wordsworth speaks of the loss of the simple joy in nature he felt as a child, and tries to find other compensations and comforts:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering…

We have no way of knowing, but it is certainly possible that Dr. Adams may have gained back some of that “splendor in the grass”—at least, visually—as she lost her ability to communicate in words. In another part of the poem, Wordsworth speaks of the “soul’s immensity.” Stories such as Dr. Adams’ tell not only of the human brain’s mysterious and unpredictable plasticity, but the immensity of that far more mysterious enitity—the human soul.

[NOTE: Here’s another story of a remarkable brain-damaged individual.]

32 Responses to “Human plasticity: left/right front/back brain”

  1. Artfldgr Says:

    I come from an arts and sciences base. You have seen my work in vogue and bundt the german mag (photography)… though most have not seen my more personal work. I work also as a software engineer… but my training was originally physics at bronx science. I played concert clarinet and played at lincoln center and carnegie hall (my cousin had his own at lincon center at another hall as he graduated from juliard).

    i am one of the last of the real rennaisance men.

    spanning pure arts to heavy mathematics.

    [my son is on mathermatics scholarship. dad was an artist who suddenly became an engineer in a year. grandmom was a research chemist before women supposedly were allowed. and the list goes on]

    i am also handicapped, being totally deaf in one ear… so i cant even get to do a fMRI study since the brain patterns would be abnormal due to the deaf side.

    when i was a kid they studied me like a lab rat. cameras, and tests… they were too busy with confirming ideology to actually learn anything, but they did get their degrees because i was their thesis.

    what a long strange trip its been….

    left brain, right brain, heck, i am a person that says why use half a brain when you have a whole one ready? 🙂

  2. John Says:

    That spinning dancer is a trip. At first I saw it counter-clockwise. Then I circled my right index finger clockwise around my left until I was able to picture it clockwise. Now I can’t get it to go back 😮 I’m going to be right brained for the rest of the day. Thanks a lot 😛

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that….

  3. John Russell Says:

    Dear Neo,

    I had a head injury some years back. Sub- and epi- dural hematomas on/in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes on the right side. About 30% morbidity overall. I really should have been what they called a “gork” but I recovered a lot, including some things I didn’t have before. But the short term memory thing was a trial, to put it mildly. One thing that was weird was that my brain went in large part from random access to sequential access. I could “know” something but not knew that I knew it. Then someone would mention the thing and the entire memory would come back.

    There is an amazing movie called “Memento” that is chillingly close to what I experienced at first, though I learned to handle it better and a lot of what I “lost” showed up later in other ways.

  4. John Russell Says:

    Dear Neo,

    Whenever I visit your blog I get hungry. You should be getting a stipend from the apple growers.

  5. Thomas Says:

    Artfldgr Says:

    “when i was a kid they studied me like a lab rat. cameras, and tests… they were too busy with confirming ideology to actually learn anything”

    Yeah, you have to really watch all these left right brain studies.. If it’s not ideology it can simply be cultural assumptions / biases (re: about what constitutes personality trait dichotomies… and/or if they exist… for one) leaking in. Absolutely everything needs to be demonstrated… or it’s just random opinion / bunk.

  6. Shaldag Says:

    My wife claims that I think with the “other” brain all the time anyway, and that brain is neither left or right.

  7. OldManRick Says:

    I am very left brained (math major, engineer, logical, planner) but I see the spinning dancer as moving clockwise. I also, for a while, could not reverse it no matter how hard I tried. Being very left brained, I analyzed why I got the right brained answer.

    The problem with the spinning dancer is that, as I first saw it, both the right arm and right leg are raised as if they had been “thrown” to induce the spinning motion. The right shoulder is leaning slightly back as if it had also been twisted.

    But, since there are no visual clues as to the true front and back of the picture, the arm may actually be the left arm. Why did I assume the right arm? The only reason is that would be the arm I would use to create a spinning (or throwing) motion. (I’m not a very good dancer but I played softball, basketball, and racket ball and always lead with my right arm).

    Neo- Tilt your head to the left, image leading with your left arm, and see if you can see her rotating counter clockwise.

  8. Ron Hardin Says:

    Check out Blanchot on Holderlin’s madness.

  9. Vanderleun Says:

    That test of the turning dancer is fine, but I’m waiting for the test of the Turing dancer.

  10. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    Clockwise. Clockwise clockwise. I was going to say I couldn’t see it any other way, but finally, by fixing on her ponytail only, I got her to go counterclockwise for just a few revolutions. Then she snapped back clockwise again and I can’t re-shift her.

    I have my doubts about this test because my husband, too, sees her turning clockwise. Now, I might well be right-brained, or more likely, I think, balanced like Neo (I am both a lawyer and an artist/creative writer) but my husband is left-brained indeed. Might it not reflect one’s dominant eye as much as one’s dominant brain-half?

  11. Grizzly Recare Says:

    What’s it mean if I can see the dancer spin in either direction, on command. All I have to do is look at something else for a moment then turn my focus back to the dancer. She’s then dancing the other direction.

    BTW: I’m an Electrical Engineer so I’ve got a pretty mathematical background.

  12. J. Peden Says:

    I don’t quite believe all the “left/right brain” stuff, probably because I’m ambidexterous. But here’s an odd occurrence:

    I wrote for many years lefthanded, but gradually lost all ability to do so – eventually being able to produce only literal “chickenscratch”. So I shifted to writing righthanded and can do it quite adequately, except for the lack of needing to=practice.

    But no other function whasoever of my left hand was involved in this dysfunction, thankfully. For a long time, however, when I was trying to write righthanded, my left hand would kind of clench or move, which I could eventually stop by concentrating-relaxing. Mind over Matter, no doubt.

  13. SteveH Says:

    Can you draw a horse?

    Think about it. All of us instinctively know a correct or incorrect horse rendering when we see it.

    I’m suggesting that we all knowing how NOT to draw a horse, reveals us all knowing exactly how to draw a horse. Except for our not trusting we have that information at the tip of our synapses.

  14. J. Peden Says:

    I can get the dancer to go clockwise by getting her into the field of my left peripheral vision – while looking straight ahead, maybe 40 degrees to the right of the screen – then looking straight back at her. She goes counter clockwise when I do the analogous thing to the opposite side. Is that cheating?

  15. J. Peden Says:

    I’m suggesting that we all knowing how NOT to draw a horse, reveals us all knowing exactly how to draw a horse.

    Wonderful suggestion, SteveH. But if I ever try to draw a nude woman, somehow I just know I’m going to need a real live model.

  16. LTEC Says:

    In his latest book “Musicophilia”, Oliver Sacks has a chapter about the man you wrote of earlier, Clive Wearing. Also, Deborah Wearing has written a book about him .

  17. Choey Says:

    OK, I can make it go either direction at will. Does that mean I’m special? Will I be world dictator some day???

  18. douglas Says:

    Reading how having a disease which damages the brain progressively can make one quite artistically talented makes me grateful that I am only somewhat talented in that regard. The balance between the artistic and the technical is why I went into architecture, I think.

    I can indeed see the dancer spinning either way.

  19. goesh Says:

    I feel your pain

  20. Dennis Says:

    I see it more clockwise than counter-clockwise. I am not sure things like this are only slightly indicative of one’s abilities. I believe that most of us use both sides of our brains in varying degrees. That is what makes us who we are.
    I would be more interested in how our active vice our subconscious mind interact. I know that if I walk away from a problem for a couple of hours that when I return the problem just seems to solve itself for me.
    When most of my job was problem solving I used to try and visualize all of the ramifications and then take a walk or go to lunch. In variably I would have a better grasp of things after returning. I got to the point that I counted upon this in almost everything.
    Even musically it is easier to create when I just let it happen. To analyze is to paralyze in this endeavor.

  21. Ymarsakar Says:

    The dancer’s weight and posture seems to be in such a way that she has to be moving clockwise.

    I can see her stepping forward, but not to her left Her right foot doesn’t seem like it is angled correctly for a person taking a step to the left.

  22. njcommuter Says:

    Can you draw a horse?

    Think about it. All of us instinctively know a correct or incorrect horse rendering when we see it.

    I’m suggesting that we all knowing how NOT to draw a horse, reveals us all knowing exactly how to draw a horse. Except for our not trusting we have that information at the tip of our synapses.

    One of the secrets of learning to draw is learning to see. If we try to create a visual image from the integrated knowledge we have of a horse, we get nonsense. It’s only when we learn how to ignore most of what we know and attend to exactly what our eyes are telling us and no more that we can create an image that will reproduce the experience to our eyes.

  23. Bugs Says:

    I visualized the dancer going both ways but it was difficult to switch. Both sides of my brain thought she looked pretty hot so they also visualized a pole and some stage lighting.

  24. Thomas Says:

    Mine was clockwise until I focused on reading the text to left. Then it switches.

  25. Sergey Says:

    Lateralization in humans is partially genetical, but when mothers during pregnancy are subjected to stress, they produced unusually high percentage of left-handed babies. This is confirmed by statistics of pre-war generation compared to during war and after-war generations.
    There is one interesting thing about left-handed children coerced to switch to right-handed mode: they do not acquire clerkly hand. This motoric automatism can be developed only with good coordination of motoric centers with perceptual ones, without retranslation signals between brain hemispheres. But when this automatism is already acqired, it manifest itself in both hands, and even in legs! (You can write your name holding pen it toes, and it will resemble your handwriting.)
    I tested this hypothesis on my wife, who, being inherently left-handed, was relearned to write by right hand. Her handwriting was awfull. In university I barely could decipher her lecture notes. I adviced her try to write something by left hand. She wrote several pages this way, and we witnessed a miracle: it took only three hours to develop a nice handwriting, which preserved in right hand as well!
    I understand, of course, that right/left handedness has nothing to do with left/right brain dominance in cognitive skills, that develop much later and independently from motoric skills dominance.

  26. J. Peden Says:

    She also stops at what seem to be random times, but I think it’s all just a sinister plot to make us think we’re stupid – designed by by a Lefty, no doubt.

  27. Sergey Says:

    I had strange experience with this dancer test: she moved both ways, roughly equal time each, but I could not make a switch.
    Matematicians are not all left-brained. My mathematical teacher at school made a joke: to study mathematics, you must work with all four hemispheres, two upper and two lower.
    Apart from jokes, there are two styles in mathematical thinking: algebraic (left-brained, symbols manipulation) and geometrical, heavily using visual-spatial skills (that is, right-brained). Many problem allow both representations. Mine approach is purely geometrical, with complex manipulation by visual imaginery (projections, vector spaces, etc.)

  28. Artfldgr Says:


    sorry.. i was referring to the hell that they put and ahve put the gifted through. from social experimentation with ulterior motives. like putting us in classes with the most violent kids, thinking that our brains will rub off and we will make geniuses out of people who think torturing is a fun way to spend a day. or how adults would waltz into my life, pretending to be the best friends, but they were researchers with their agendas, so they made friends, got what they wanted, then left the kid by himself a freak.

    here is another older person who was gifted, and unlike me, a lot more bitter.


    There is every reason to think that many of those involved in education have ideological axes to grind; and even if they did not, they are in a position of so much power to influence what goes on in the lives of their victims, that it could hardly be expected that their subconscious motives would not have considerable influence on the outcome. Their motives are not necessarily purely ideological; they may simply prefer or dislike one type of person rather than another. In particular, jealousy of exceptional ability, exceeding their own, is likely to be a very influential force in the situation.

    the stories i could tell.. meanwhile, they loved to use such kitsche as left and right brained, and other catches, to label us and sort us, then do things to us.

    i remember a freind who broke down before he could be tested… never made it anywhere.. the games were too much on top of academic acheivment they didnt want him to have, so they could cook the books.

    right now in colorado they will do somethig similar. now poor = gifted… so if a kid is poor and a minority he or she gets in the gifted program. (cause we are all the same. like those sociopaths and psychopaths that destroyed my ability to breath normally).

    its nice. under the guise of social whatever, the teachers will spend all their time working on kids that cant do the work, and so what happens to all the smart kids who are predominantly jewish, chinese, or caucasian?

    can you spell ted kazynski?

    [have you ever read his tract? its the kind of thing that movemetns are founded on – and would have been if teddy was more the political animal than the fix it yourself kind of guy]

    to quote
    Criticising the sacred assumptions of the modern ideology and breaking the taboo about complaining of the damage done to your life by properly appointed agents of the collective seems to be regarded as even more reprehensible than pornography.

    so i was referring to a personal gripe in how the collectivist system has managed to insure that the best and brightest actually dont go anywhere.

    care to see what the roles are for engineering, and sciences?

    left brain right brain is populist crapola…

    its like nature nurture… its not some opposing proportions on a scale. its 100% of both. duh.

    read about tall poppy syndrome, and how we hate success, and deem that those who are, are cheaters… ergo, paris hilton is a giant, emmy noether is unknown, and sanger a eugenicist whose eugenics mag hitler was a fan of, is a hero.


    another quote

    The only form of success to which people have little resistance is that of socially appointed oppressors of humanity, in which case the successful person may enjoy some status and power over others so long as he retains his position, but is unlikely to become rich enough to enjoy any autonomy. He is not going to be free to do anything he wants in any way he could get anything out of, and will always be expected to get his kicks out of frustrating and oppressing other people

    for some reason, this post churned up the past.

    why, i dont know.

    The power of society depends on the power of the lie. The power of the lie is very great.

    The power of the individual depends on the right of possession and the sanctity of facts.

    Neither of these is recognised by society. It is only in a capitalist society that there is a recognition of the individual’s right to the facts. He has a right to the facts about his possessions. Consequently facts are themselves regarded as possessing a certain value. In a socialist society no one has any right to the facts. There is no point in facts at all. The power of the state, which is the sole good, is best safeguarded by there being no facts.

    People are subjective, but some people are more subjective than others and those who believe in society are the most subjective of all. This is because they have abandoned to society their right to assess facts for themselves in return for the power that society will give them over other men. The high priests of society are social workers, doctors and psychiatrists. Their function is to convince others that they are being subjective when they criticise society.

    (from the forthcoming book The Corpse and the Kingdom)

  29. CJ Says:

    I am baffled by the “dancer”. What is “clockwise” supposed to mean? Is it clockwise when looking down at her from above? Or when looking up from the floor? Her weight placement is of course impossible, since only her heel ever touches the floor, and that only for a moment at the end of each revolution. Why doesn’t she spin with the weight on the ball of her foot? Would that wreck the effect? Perhaps I am suffering some sort of brain dysfunction, because the whole thing makes no sense to me.

  30. Artfldgr Says:

    you sound like an engineer.. 🙂

  31. J. Peden Says:

    What is “clockwise” supposed to mean?

    Amen. And what is this “anti-clockwise” business? Why is “anti” better than “counter”? And…

    One other burning question: could “being right/left handed” discourage people from using their other hand from an early age and somehow inhibit development of one side of the brain to its fullest?

  32. Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Says:

    “What is clockwise? ”
    (Are you being silly?)
    If somebody asked you to spin clockwise, could you? I could.
    a) right foot on ground, turning right, “pushing” with shoulders, left foot up & trailing, OR
    b) left foot on ground, turning right, “falling” with my right foot sort of leading — like the dancer.

    Which foot is on the floor?

    It can be either, but in both directions it feels like the (b) kind of falling turning.

    I use the mouse with my left hand to exercise my right brain a bit.

    Delightful post, Neo.

    (J. Peden’s advice helped me control the otherwise less controlled switching. Mostly clockwise for me.)

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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