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Singing with your whole brain: the right brain/left brain dichotomy.

THE POPULAR BELIEF THAT HUMANS POSSESS right or left brained abilities is almost as pervasive as the sense that the mind is "wiser" than the body--the classic "mind-body problem" of philosophy. While this dichotomy springs from ancient roots in Western culture, the myth of the right brain/left brain personality is an artifact from the early days of modern neuroscience.

That story begins with the tale of Phineas Gage, the 19th century railroad worker whose frontal lobe was shattered by a metal rod in a blasting accident in 1848, but who nevertheless eventually recovered and went on to live another twelve years. His accident, however, produced a pronounced change in his temperament. He was given to such irascible fits of temper, indecision, and foul language that his friends and family pronounced him "no longer Gage." (1)

Because of the assiduous documentation of his case by the physicians who treated him, Gage's story is a landmark one in the annals of brain science. His injury revealed that the frontal lobes are "specialized" for emotion and impulse control, the very essence of what we call personality. Gage's ruined brain tissue dissolved the core of what had once been Gage, the "capable and efficient foreman, one with a well-balanced mind," and left behind a stranger, thus sparking the theory of "functional specialization." (2)

Gage's case also advanced the diagnostic tradition of "lesion-deficit analysis," whereby researchers observe the behavior of brain damaged patients in life, determine the site of the damage (lesions) in a post mortem operation, and then infer that the damaged brain region must have been the site of the damaged ability.

As neuroscience continues to advance, it leaves behind outdated analysis methods and theories of mind. Yet popular culture moves neither in the same direction, nor at the same pace. The entwined theories of functional specialization and lateralization were, from the start, vulnerable to metaphoric interpretation by nonscientists, which is always the first step to eventual misappropriation of scientific findings.

The field of neuroscience has pursued a more conservative approach to exploring brain function, with the lesion-deficit analysis method remaining yet a favored research procedure. This technique raises a much broader humanistic question regarding the ultimate wisdom of inferring an organism's healthy function solely through the lens of disease, regardless of its scientific efficacy. In this case, our ability to comprehend the implications of our curiosity through the nonscientific construct of metaphor is a uniquely human attribute, a treasure to be prized and cultivated.

These contradictions hover like an air fern above the quietly eroding roots of the mind-body problem, leaving anyone interested in learning in general, and the pursuit of higher order muscular skills in particular, in quite a conundrum. Add to this confusion the requirements of the singer for artistry, discipline, and robust health, plus the belief in one's power to change, and the modern day singing actor faces a miasma of truly conflicting theories.

Thus I begin this new volume with a series of articles, "Singing With Your Whole Brain," in which these entangled topics are clarified in light of recent research and philosophy.


As brain science advanced, functional specialization theory expanded to include "lateralization theory," the theory that specific abilities reside in one or the other hemispheres of the brain. The concept was reified in the 1960s through pioneering studies of so-called "split-brain" patients. Experiments based on the lesion-deficit analysis method were conducted on epileptic patients who had undergone surgery to completely sever the corpus callosum, the broad plate of dense fibers that connects the two brain hemispheres, in a drastic attempt to control their seizures. These early experiments in "hemispheric specialization" revealed that, while these patients retained certain abilities, they also demonstrated remarkable deficiencies when the two hemispheres could no longer communicate.

The news of hemispheric specialization did not stay confined to the lab, but spread quickly throughout the culture. Art instructor Betty Edwards's curiosity about why her students experienced random successes in her drawing classes compelled her to seek "an organizing principle that would pull it all together." (3) In the mid 1970s, she found her way to the accounts of the split-brain studies, which she said,

... provided me with the sudden illumination that an individual's
ability to draw was perhaps mainly controlled by the ability to shift
to a different-from-ordinary way of processing visual information--to
shift from verbal, analytic processing (in this book called "left-mode
or "L-mode") to spatial, global processing (which I have called
"right-mode or "R-mode"). (4)

Edwards's "sudden illumination" was purveyed in her best-selling 1978 book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which is now in its fourth edition, has been translated into seventeen languages, and has sold close to two million copies in the United States alone. Edwards's success allowed her to found her company of the same name, which sells books, videos, and other products, and sponsors "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" workshops around the country. Publicity for the newest edition of her book claims to reflect "crucial updates based on recent research," with "a new focus on how the ability to draw on the strengths of the right hemisphere can serve as an antidote to the increasing left-brain emphasis in American life--the worship of all that is linear, analytic, [and] digital." (5) Edwards's website still features this quote from a 1985 book on the brain (practically an eon ago in brain science years):

You have two brains: a left and a right. Modern brain scientists now
know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain; it thinks
serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters and words ...
Your right brain is your nonverbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in
patterns, or pictures, composed of 'whole things,' and does not
comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words. (6)

Would that it were that simple. Where the brain is concerned, we should collectively pull back in awe of "the most complex object in the known universe." (7)


Brain lateralization theory has largely given way to a theory of "network connectivity." Even though it is true that specific, discrete tasks are "lateralized," absent frank brain injuries or disorders, during complex cognitive processes both hemispheres of the human brain appear to communicate with each other.

Yet the notion that the left brain is "rational" and the right brain "creative" persists in popular culture, as does the twin notion that people evince either right brain or left brain personalities and "learning styles." Indeed, the left brain/right brain theory of personality ranks right alongside the "Mozart Effect" as one of the most enduring scientific myths of the current age. Popular media are rilled with tips on how to boost creativity by "tapping into your right mind" and learning "tricks you can deep practice to buff up your right hemisphere." (8) (It is a fascinating comment on the cultural moment that there are far fewer calls for embracing your inner Spock by developing the supposedly "rational left brain.")

Against this backdrop, a team of neuroscientists at the University of Utah recently made headlines with a two-year study that investigated the neural substrates to the left brain/right brain theory of personality. Their host institution did not mince words when it announced in a press release, "Researchers Debunk Myth of 'Right-brain' and 'Left-brain' Personality Traits." (9) But the researchers themselves were more circumspect; in the language of the academic paper, they noted that

Lateralization of brain connections appears to be a local rather than
global property of brain networks, and our data are not consistent with
a whole-brain phenotype of greater ''left-brained'' or greater
''right-brained'' network strength across individuals. (10)

In other words, it is true that certain functions can be seen to occur in one hemisphere of the brain or the other (the "local property" the scientists referenced), but, as expressed in the more conversational language of a personal interview, "people don't tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network." (11)

Yet few in the scientific press doubt that the myth of the left-brain or right-brain personality, or learner, will fade anytime soon, for any number of reasons. Some speculate that humans crave order, so that neat categorizations of personality types is appealing, particularly in occupations that require people to assess and manage groups of people, like classroom teaching, coaching athletics, or even music conducting.

Labeling oneself may be equally seductive, especially if we wish to project a certain air, that of the freewheeling artist, the down-to-earth rational thinker, or the creative genius. Such labeling can be a get-out-of-jail-free card when we behave impulsively, unemotionally, or forgetfully --neglecting the anniversary bouquet is perhaps more easily excused when committed by an unapologetic "left-brainer," as is the rash behavior of the family's artsy black sheep. It is more appealing to pass off such lapses as part of who we believe ourselves to be, especially since doing so guards against any expectation that we could change these behaviors in the future. These may be seemingly harmless peccadilloes, but as one writer pointed out,

The problems start, however, when the left-brained/right-brained myth
becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When your 12-year-old fills out an
online personality test that pegs her as a "right-brainer" and she
decides to skip her math homework--because the test told her she isn't
good with numbers--the persistence of this false dichotomy starts to
become destructive. The same goes for the unemployed worker who forgoes
applying for their dream job because the job description calls for
creativity skills they think they may not have. (12)

In the arena of fine singing, imagine how limiting it is for the baritone who harbors the notion that as a rational left-brainer he has a "talent" for rhythm but just isn't "cut out for acting," or the soprano who excuses her musical mistakes as a "right-brained learner" who was "never any good at rhythm." Likewise, the science-or-art debate in voice pedagogy erects similar restrictions; if sides are taken, no matter which one you land on, you are automatically rejecting half of the body of knowledge in our field. (13) Resistance, on both sides, to the opportunity to work together is functionally inefficient.

The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of
"left-dominant" or "right-dominant" personality types. Lesion studies
don't support it, and the truth is that it would be highly inefficient
for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the
otherz (14)


Michael Gazzaniga, the eminent psychologist who conducted those now famous split-brain experiments, has spent his lifetime shedding light on the most complex object in the known universe. I heard him speak some years ago, when he claimed in the after-lecture question period that "we just about have this thing figured out"--"we" being brain scientists and "this thing" being the human brain.

Bingo! Modern neuroscience. So we're moving down this path, and
everybody is being told that we are coming to a greater and greater
understanding of the mechanistic nature of the human brain and we are,
that's just the deal, we are. Someday, somewhere, somehow, someone is
going to figure out how the damn thing works. (15)

Audience reaction to this declaration ranged from admiration to bemusement to consternation at such hubris. Nobel prize winner Eric Kandel cautions that, "the new science of mind faces remarkable challenges. Researchers...are only standing at the foothills of a great mountain range." (16)

Gazzaniga's zeal is perhaps forgivable; but the quest to understand the mechanistic nature of how the brain works lateralizes the very nature of the human mind, which is, according to current neuro-dogma, merely "what the brain does." (17) Seeking answers to the mechanistic nature of any system, be it the human brain or the human voice, is only part (and not even half) of the question. Scientists, like singers, must also ask what revealing the mechanism might tell us about how we learn, remember, create, feel, and communicate. The final, related existential question--why what we do matters at all--is left to the poet, the painter, the singer to interpret. It appears that the human brain functions in much the same way, by both producing abilities, then comprehending them; by both bringing forth an action, and then interpreting it.

... both hemispheres of the brain make critical contributions, [which]
holds for most types of cognitive skills. It takes two hemispheres to
be logical--or to be creative. (18)

Surely it takes two hemispheres in constant communication with one another to bring forth beautiful, artistic singing.


(1.) Malcolm Macmillan, "The Phineas Gage Information Page," The Center for the History of Psychology, The University of Akron, Ohio; (accessed May 16, 2014).

(2.) Ibid.

(3.) Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1979), vii.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Penguin Random House website; (accessed May 16, 2014).

(6.) Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Inc.; (accessed May 16, 2014).

(7.) Christof Koch, Chief Scientific Officer, Allen Institute for Brain Science, interview June 14, 2013 NPR Talk of the Nation; (accessed May 16, 2014).

(8.) Martha Beck, "Creativity Boost: How to Tap into the Right-Brain Thinking,"; (accessed May 16, 2014).

(9.) Melinda Rogers, "Researchers Debunk Myth of 'Right-brain' and 'Left-brain' Personality Traits," University of Utah Health Care news release; (accessed May 16, 2014).

(10.) Jared A. Nielsen, Brandon A. Zielinski, Michael A. Ferguson, Janet E. Lainhart, and Jeffrey S. Anderson, "An Evaluation of the Left-Brain vs. Right-Brain Hypothesis with Resting State Functional Connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging," PLOS ONE 8, no. 8 (August 2013): e71275 : 1.

(11.) Rogers.

(12.) Amy Novotney, "Despite what you've been told, you aren't 'left-brained' or 'right-brained'," The Guardian (November 16, 2013); (accessed May 16, 2014).

(13.) See Lynn Helding, "Voice Science and Vocal Art: In Search of Common Ground," Journal of Singing 64, no. 2 (November/December 2007): 141-150; "Connecting Voice Science to Vocal Art: Motor Learning Theory," Journal of Singing 64, no. 4 (March/April 2008): 417-428.

(14.) Jeffrey S. Anderson, as quoted in Novotney.

(15.) Michael Gazzaniga, Princeton University Vanuxem public lecture series, "Personal Identity, Neuroethics and the Human Brain" (Thursday, April 14, 2005); available at

(16.) Eric Kandel, "The New Science of Mind," Scientific American Mind (April/May 2006): 65.

(17.) Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1997), 24.

(18.) Kara D. Federmeier, as quoted in "The Truth About The Left Brain / Right Brain Relationship," 13.7: Cosmos & Culture, NPR (December 02, 2013); (accessed May 16, 2014).

Lynn Helding has sung throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, and Iceland, where her performances were broadcast on Icelandic National Radio. Her lecture series "Connecting Voice Science to Vocal Art" illuminates ongoing research in cognitive science, a field she claims "ushers in a paradigm shift in emphasis from how well teachers teach, to how well students learn."

Helding studied voice at the University of Montana with Esther England, in Vienna with Kammersanger Otto Edelmann, and at Indiana University with Dale Moore, where she was the first singer accepted to pursue the Artist Diploma. She earned the Master's Degree in Vocal Pedagogy from Westminster Choir College of Rider University, and studied vocology with Dr. Ingo Titze, Dr. Katherine Verdolini, and others at the Summer Vocology Institute of the National Center for Voice and Speech. In 2005, she was awarded the Van Lawrence Fellowship, given jointly by the Voice and NATS Foundations.

She served four years as a member of the voice faculty at Vanderbilt University, and is currently Associate Professor of Voice and Director of Performance Studies at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. She welcomes visitors and feedback to "Mindful Voice" at her website: and communication at:
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Title Annotation:MINDFUL VOICE
Author:Helding, Lynn
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2014
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