Scientists of all disciplines have pop culture ‘pet peeves.’ I’m sure physicists cringe at the rampant misinterpretation/misuse of quantum physics in movies (I’m looking at you, Ant-Man). I can almost hear the distant facepalm of a chemist each time a commercial plays that advertises ‘chemical-free’ soaps (like, all matter is technically a chemical by definition). As a neuroscientist, one of my pet peeves is the idea that people are either ‘right-brained’ or ‘left-brained,’ similar to how people favor their right or left hand.
It’s a misconception that’s based in some truth. In some of the early explorations of the human brain, scientists discovered that there were particular parts of the brain that were involved in certain specialized functions. If the back of the brain was damaged, vision issues would pop up. If certain areas on the left area of a patient’s brain were injured somehow, they would lose the ability to speak or understand language. As seen in the fascinating story of a patient known as H.M., surgical removal of the temporal lobe completely wipes out a person’s ability to form new memories. Work done by Roger W. Sperry in ‘split brain’ patients showed that the two halves of the brain function differently. However, his findings were popularized and taken out of context.
A popular myth arose that people either favor the left side of the brain, which supposedly houses logical/mathematical/technical skills, or the right side of the brain, which is supposedly more involved in creativity/emotion/imagination. However, when scientists did a large, systematic study of whether people used their right or left brain hemisphere more, they found that people use both sides of their brain equally on average.
Ok, so there’s a little misconception. So what? Does that make a big difference in my life? Why is that one of my pet peeves? I’ll tell you why I take it so personally.
Sometimes, when people learn that I’m a neuroscientist, they say something to the effect of “Wow, I could never do something that technical. I’m more into art and music than math and science stuff.” Similarly, when people learn about my wife’s profession (artist) she often hears, “You’re so creative! My brain doesn’t work like that, I’m mostly a math/science-kind of person.” What they don’t know is that my wife, who paints beautiful portraits and landscapes, did a lot better in undergraduate Organic Chemistry than I did before she switched to art as a major. Similarly, they don’t know that I actually love to write, record and release music.
I worry that people often silo themselves into little categories based on this logic, and that they miss out on really wonderful experiences by saying ‘oh, I’m not a _____ person.’ Science is inherently a creative process, and art often requires a great deal of technical expertise. In his book This is Your Brain on Music, rock musician-turned-neuroscientist Daniel Levitin eloquently explores the similarities between artist/musician and scientist by comparing their methods and work spaces. Like scientists, he observes, “Most artists describe their work as experiments—part of a series of efforts designed to explore a common concern.” With respect to their work spaces, he notes, “Artists’ studios and scientists’ laboratories share similarities as well, with a large number of projects going at once, in various stages of incompletion.” (Pages 4-5)
Having spent time in many art/recording studios as well as many labs, I can attest to that.
A scientist is a storyteller. Though the story is often written in technical language and requires a great deal of prior knowledge, each scientific paper is (or ideally should be) a story that advances our understanding of truth. A good paper will effectively say “We had an important question. This is the story of how we answered it.” The path is typically through experiments, data, and numbers that are relevant and meaningful to the question, but ideally it follows a logical timeline of convincing evidence. Just as everyone loves to point out plot holes in movies, scientists are constantly analyzing the “plot holes” in others’ stories, as well as their own.
Because the creative process is central to art and science, it makes sense that so many famous scientists were also accomplished artists. I think of Leonard DaVinci, who in addition to his numerous inventions and advances in the field of human anatomy, created the Mona Lisa, which is still hailed for its artistic merit centuries after his death. I think of these rock stars who, in addition to recording and touring, hold a PhD in various subjects.
If you feel like you’ve closed yourself into an ‘artsy, not science-y’ category, try delving into a world that you wouldn’t usually explore on social media by looking up #scicomm on any platform. Here you will see the art being done in the name of science on a daily basis. If you’re in the ‘technical, not musical’ category, it may be time to dig up the guitar you haven’t played in 10 years, or the paint brushes that have been dormant in a storage box. In my experience, the more time you spend between both worlds, the more you realize how wonderfully similar they really are.
Edited by Jennifer Sieben and Liz Rosdeitcher