Forget Everything You Know About Left Brain Versus Right Brain

Words: Allison Pohle
Photograph: Christopher Kelemen / Red Bull Content Pool

How you work with a team to solve problems says a lot more about your success

A biophysicist, a chemist, a computer scientist and a physicist walked into a bar on a Saturday afternoon — but that’s not where the joke comes in. The real stunt came less than an hour before, when the group of MIT grad students spent 20 minutes in a dark room containing only four screens that were set up for a “mind puzzle” competition.

They weren’t the only group that took part in the challenge. The organisers from Red Bull’s Mind Gamers also invited a team from Berklee College of Music to compete. They wanted to see whether there was any difference in problem-solving techniques between the supposedly “left-brained” MIT scientists, and “right-brained” Berklee musicians.

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Participants play during the Game City Event in Austria, Vienna.

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But the joke’s on everyone who takes part in the challenge. The competition is structured so that participants come in with no idea of what the puzzles are, meaning they need to figure out how to solve a problem when they have no idea what the problem is. Whether they succeeded had nothing to do with whether they’re left or right brained, and everything to do with how they communicated as a team.

There’s an enduring idea in our culture that humans can be more “right-brained” or “left-brained.” The left brained, it’s said, are the more analytical and logical math nerds (in theory, the MIT kids), while the right-brained are the more creative and imaginative artists (the Berklee kids). But there’s no one-size-fits all label when it comes to defining someone, and, as it turns out, neuroscientists have disproven the theory that one side of the brain is more dominant.

“People don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network,” said Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D at the University of Utah, who published a study debunking the left and right brain personality theories. “But it is true that some functions occur in one side of the brain. Language tends to be on the left, and attention to the outside world tends to be the right.”

That means that when it comes to problem-solving, people, whether scientists or artists, use the left hemisphere of their brains to talk through issues and possible solutions, said cognitive neuroscientist, Kara D. Federmeier. The right side, she said, comes in when people are faced with an ill-defined problem and are contemplating solutions that aren’t laid out right in front of them. “When people try to solve those [vague] types of problems verbally, they get caught up in loops,” she said.

The puzzles require interacting with tiles in a playing field to build a path of connecting lines from start to finish. As the game progresses, elements of each puzzle pop up on all four screens, meaning some communication is required so players know who is solving each element.

Rather than split up, the Berklee team members—made up of two undergrads studying music business and two studying film scoring—traveled in a pack from screen to screen, debating the potential solutions before trying them out. Charles Augustine, one of the music business majors, eventually took the lead, and yelled out instructions to his team members, often stepping in front of them to solve the puzzles himself.

“The way we played was like a Sunday afternoon playing video games at Charles’ place,” said Asher Roper, one of the film scorers. “All of us yelling and trying to figure out what to do by talking about it.

Team Kirhoffersarmy playing at a Mind Gamers event at UCSD campus.

© Alyssa Lavine / Red Bull Content Pool

The MIT students, however, worked quietly and individually, each taking a position in front of their own separate screen to solve the puzzle, rather than working as a team on one problem at a time. Because they split up, they were able to finish the 16-puzzle challenge before the timer ran out, while the Berklee team didn’t get past the 14th puzzle in the 20-minute time frame. “We all understood our roles and without saying it, just divided up and did our part,” Jaeseung Hahn, the physicist said. “We were on a mission.”

So how does this translate to the real world? The winning team showed that, when you’re faced with a challenge and the solution isn’t immediately clear, it helps if you don’t waste time talking yourself in circles.

“At MIT, we’re used to not knowing what’s going on and we’re no longer demoralized by that, so we think, ‘let’s just try something,’” said Britni Crocker, the computer scientist. “We each just tried different approaches until we were able to figure it out.” And, no matter your background—when the solution does come—everyone agreed that a celebratory drink is in order.

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