Pseudoscience and Lateralization

In November 2013 in the course of an alumni event I was welcomed a guest speaker in Basel, Switzerland, at the University of Applied Sciences Northwest Switzerland. My presentation was on “scientific research in academia and business”, which also was the namesake title. The presentation went remarkably well in light of the efforts that were put into the preparations. As I later came to know the title would not attract the crowd I was hoping for; Other presentations with titles including notions such as “new media” or “entrepreneurship” had definitively caught the attentions of the attendees. As an alumnus, however, I was determined to bring across the path of science, as the courses at the uni were – and probably still are – very business savvy. Which is a little hypocritical considering one is being awarded with a bachelor of science upon successful completion.

IBM netwroking eventApéro after Presentation (Alex Mattakathu in the chequered shirt)
l.: Introductory talk by the dean; r. :Apéro after Presentation (me in the chequered shirt)

At any rate, my preparations was about how scientific research is employed in academia and business to advance and establish new findings. The presentation was very broad and covered a vast landscape and ranged from research methods including Netnography and softwares used, to big data, employee research and personality assessments in regard to hiring. I’ll probably cover these topics on my blog one by one at a later point.

What was interesting though is that, after the presentation, in the discussion session, we had a good conversation about “pseudoscience”, an expression I had previously mentioned in the presentation. And despite that fire the conversation had sparked then, I’d like to go at it from a different angle here. Bare with me as I make a brief excursion into couple of examples.

Pseudoscience for once, are claims that either have no scientific evidence, did not allude into scientific grounds profoundly enough, or just are misrepresentation of ‘reality’. And it is interesting that claims over time have been proven wrong by tests having been rerun, through newer methods, brighter scientists, etc., and the whole belief system surrounding – the now pseudoscientific – claim came crumbling down. A fair example for this is the (still) common belief that our brains are divided into two hemispheres with distinctive roles, know as laterelization of the brain in psychology. If you don’t know what it’s about the following infographs (still live on Pinterest) illustrate the claim:

Left vs. Right Brain – Overview
L & R Brain
Right and left brain thinking

This is my personal favourite:
Are You Right or Left Brained?

This idea became fairly popular in the 70s, and became eventually widely accepted, even leading to a Nobel Prize in 1981 to the man who was responsible for the discovery: Roger W. Sperry. In a nutshell, it claims facets of our sensory perception and the abilities to produce particular functions such as being intuitive or creative are controlled by centres located in the right brain, while being analytical and logical in the left. I still remember that a decade ago I underwent some sort of test (a short survey on the internet) that would then present me with the result saying: “You are left-brained Alex. Just like Einstein”. The pseudoscientific aspect of this claim is indeed the popular belief that the sole responsibility of a certain function lies within either hemisphere; This is bullocks. That each cerebral hemisphere has its dominant role in controlling and enacting on a bodily function (i.e. right- and left-brain dominance theory) is true.

Today we know that the brain is not nearly as dichotomous as it was once believed to be. If anything, quite the contrary is (also) true. Albert Einstein (or rather his brain) was an exemplary specimen for the ‘well-connectedness’ of right and left hemispheres in proving his brilliance to the world, as a post-mortem scan of his brain later on revealed. He had even stated: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” Which leads to the question, how can to opposing claims be true? Well, that our brain is lateralized into two hemispheres, and that there are tendencies in each hemisphere contributing more to a particular function has some truth to it. In fact the “corpus callosum”, neural fibres beneath the cerebral cortex, has it as a (main) role to inhibit the other hemisphere, and interestingly enough it is located at and along the longitudinal fissure (the deep groove that separates the two hemispheres. But while either hemisphere is used (unconsciously that is) for specific functions, one hemisphere can’t accomplish the task at hand without the other. So the question is not which hemisphere accomplishes which function, but rather how is a task accomplished with the interaction of both hemispheres.

In the following video, prominent psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist explains how things go down in the ‘real’ world, how the hemispheres interact with one another; It is remarkably well illustrated (like RSA usually does) and (relatively) easy to understand.

RSA Animate – The Divided Brain from The RSA on Vimeo.

He also wrote a book that is titled “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” published in 2009. This in-depth analysis of the two hemisphere within the field of neuroscience is a fundamental contribution to the enlightenment for a long-made claim and generally a thorough read on laterelization. Read into it if you are interested.

But despite all this, it is to say that there were times when we could not get to the roots of a scientific enquiry and researchers presented the best they have had gotten, which in some cases were either insufficient, incomplete or incorrect. But let’s not forget it was those certain pseudo breakthroughs that have changed the world in favour of betterment, whether by the modest contribution it did in the spirit of advancement or by dragging the attention of fellow or future researchers in reassuring, completing or disapproving the discovery. So don’t rip of the nobel prize of the poor fellow. I believe if not with ignorance or malicious intent, any contribution is subject to betterment. So, keep using both hemispheres and don’t fall victim to predators.

Author: Alex Mattakathu

Sources and further readings:

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

MacNeilage, P. F., Rogers, L. J., & Vallortigara, G. (2009). Origins of the left & right brain. Scientific American, 301(1), 60-67.

Vallortigara, G., & Rogers, L. J. (2005). Survival with an asymmetrical brain: advantages and disadvantages of cerebral lateralization. Behavioral and brain sciences, 28(4), 575-588.

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