The Brain and personality/learning styles

The brain consists of two interconnecting hemispheres.

The idea of 'right brain' and 'left brain' thinking was developed in the late 1960s by an American psychobiologist Roger W Sperry. He concluded from his research that the human brain has two very different ways of thinking. One (the right brain) is visual and processes information in an intuitive and simultaneous way, looking first at the whole picture then the details. The other (the left brain) is verbal and processes information in an analytical and sequential way, looking first at the pieces then putting them together to get the whole. Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work. A lot of subsequent research has gone into this and currently we are aware that things aren't quite as polarized (or as simple) as they were once thought to be.

If you want to learn more about this topic I suggest you look at articles on lateralization.

Even though things are not as simple as Sperry thought they were his ideas can help us improve the way we think and learn. Once you understand your own natural preference you can develop the side of the brain that you do not naturally use in order to improve your thinking skills. An awareness of your natural prefereneces, cultural influences and the advanatages and disadvantages involved can help you understand how you 'tick' - and that can help with your studies (class work, note taking, planning, revision, exam technique etc).

The Left Hemisphere

of the Brain

The Right Hemisphere

of the Brain

The left hemisphere processes information by organizing it sequentially and is described as analytical.

This is because it specializes in recognizing the parts or building blocks of a system.

Your left brain:

  • Interprets Words
  • Does Analysis
  • Likes Details
  • Makes Plans
  • Follows Rules

The right hemisphere specializes in combining the parts to produce a whole. Unlike the left, the right hemisphere organizes simultaneously.

It specializes in a method that perceives and constructs patterns.

Your right brain:

  • Processes Pictures
  • Uses Intuition
  • Prefers the 'Big Picture'
  • Operates on Impulse
  • Uses Imagination

While each side of the brain has preferences, both sides are involved in every thought process to varying degrees. The key point is that the majority of us have a dominant brain side. Yet to fully understand a concept or learn a new process, information must make sense to both sides of the brain. Merely appealing to one side or the other results in incomplete comprehension and miscommunication.

For example, although it is most efficient at processing verbal information, language should not be considered as being 'in' the left hemisphere. This hemisphere is able to recognize that one stimulus comes before another (sequential) and therefore the left brain can recognise the word - its meaning and grammatical significance. But verbal perception and generation comes from the right side of the brain. This depends on the awareness of the sequence in which sounds occur - but produces an overall sense of meaning.

It may well be that a left brain language student can learn vocabulary and grammar really thoroughly and therefore does well in an exam but is unable to understand a native speaker because there are too many 'gaps' in the word knowledge to grasp the overall meaning - whereas a right brain dominant speaker can pick up on the general meaning without the full knowledge of vocabulary ... a really good linguist can do both!

Research into the operation of the right and left hemispheres shows that the effective processing of information requires access to both as they complement each other.

Experimentation has shown that the two different sides, or hemispheres, of the brain are responsible for different aspects of thinking.

Left Brain
Right Brain






Looks at parts/detail






Looks at the whole/overview


People think and learn in different ways. In any group there will always be evidence of different learning characteristics, but not only individual preferences have an effect on how you think (or how you think you should think!) - different cultural groups may emphasize one cognitive style over another and learning institutions also 'school' you into certain ways of thinking. All of these factors can 'skew' the style you think you prefer! You will see when you look at the list below that you have been 'taught' which way of learning is 'correct'. That is a cultural imposition - not necessarily your own natural one.

Both sides of the brain can reason, but by different strategies, and one side may be dominant. In fact most individuals have a distinct preference right or left hemisphere dominated thinking. Some, however, are more 'whole-brained' and are equally adept at both modes.

In general, academic school subjects tend to favour left-brain modes of thinking. That is why you are 'trained' to use methods of study that belong to left-brain preferences. The value of the right-brain ones is sometimes under-valued and those who naturally have predominantly a right-brain way of thinking find learning 'logical subjects' like science and maths difficult because they have to cultivate a way of thinking that is not natural to them. They can do it but it takes a lot of effort at first. This can put some people off the 'logical' subjects and make them think they can only do creative ones. Those with left-brain preference often are never encouraged to develop their right-brain enough and that can be a problem at University level and higher when their are expected to become creative in a logical field.

Left-brain scholastic subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity. But whenever you take any subject to a high level you require an inter-play of both sides of the brain. Low level mathematics is following a set way of tackling a problem - high level mathematics brings creativity into play in the way a problem is tackled and solved. Mathematics at a high level can be 'beautiful'. Similarly an English essay at a low level just requires imagination and feeling expressed (in good English) on a subject - taken to a higher level, however, essay writing involves composition that stands full textual analysis and is generated in a form that is 'ideally suitable for purpose and audience' and yet contains layers of meaning and subliminal references that take it beyond a personal level to an academic one.

Gifted and talented people need to develop both modes of thinking.... that is the way to excel!

Which Type of Learner Are You ?

The left brain is considered analytic in approach while the right is described as holistic or global.

A successive processor (left brain) prefers to learn in a step-by-step sequential format, beginning with details leading to a conceptual understanding of a skill.

A simultaneous processor (right brain) prefers to learn beginning with the general concept and then going on to specifics.

LEFT DOMINANT (Analytical) - Successive Hemispheric Style
RIGHT DOMINANT (Global - holistic) - Simultaneous Hemispheric Style
Verbal learner
Visual learner
Sequential thoughts - follows an argument
Random thoughts - goes off and comes in on tangents!
Processes information linearly
Processes information in varied order
Responds to logic
Responds to emotion
Plans ahead
Recalls people's names
Recalls people's faces
Speaks with few gestures
Gestures when speaking
Good at meeting deadlines
Often has trouble meeting deadlines - leaves things to the last minute!
Prefers formal study - silence, still at a desk, prefers bright lights while studying
Prefers sound/music background while studying - often studies on the floor! Happy to study in the lounge in front of TV or in the garden.
Cannot stand distraction
Often does more than one thing at once.
Likes details and specifics
Ignores detail - concentrates on the 'big picture'


You will find that organisations tend to display left or right brain dominance as well as people. This idea relates to the culture of the management of the organisation or company. If the organisation's culture is very much driven by rules and procedures, then it is left brain dominant. Conversely, if the organisation is 'free-wheeling', flexible and imaginative, it is right brain dominant. Think about it and you can guess what the dominance of your school or University Department is...

You will be happiest in an environment that suits your brain preference, but most productive in an environment that encompasses both preferences.

Here is a link to a self assessment quiz that allows you to find out your brain preference.

Now compare that result to the inventory of characteristics listed below...

Right Brain Inventory

Left Brain Inventory

• Visual skills, focusing on images, patterns

• Verbal skills, focusing on words, symbols, numbers

• Intuitive, led by feelings

• Analytical, led by logic

• Process ideas simultaneously - gets the 'whole picture'

• Process ideas sequentially, step by step - logically

• 'Mind photos' used to remember things, writing things down or illustrating them helps you remember

• Words used to remember things, remember names rather than faces

• Make lateral connections from information

• Make logical deductions from information

• See the whole first, then the details

• Work up to the whole step by step, focusing on details, information organized

• Organization ends to be lacking

• Highly organized

• Free association

• Like making lists and planning

• Like to know why you're doing something or why rules exist (reasons)

• Likely to follow rules without questioning them

• No sense of time

• Good at keeping track of time

• May have trouble with spelling and finding words to express yourself

• Spelling and mathematical formula easily memorized

• Enjoy touching and feeling actual objects (sensory input)

• Enjoy observing

• Trouble prioritizing, so, often late with projects, impulsive

• Plan ahead, have a timetable of deadlines in mind

• Unlikely to read instruction manual before trying

• Likely read an instruction manual before trying

• Listen to how something is being said

• Listen to what is being said

• Talk with your hands

• Rarely use gestures when talking

• Naturally creative - likely to innovate and do things your own way

• Prefer to do things in a tried and tested way

Need to apply yourself more to develop your true potential Need to be willing to try new things and take risks to develop your potential


This BBC page has a questionnaire for you to work out which part of the brain you use.

To be a really good student you should be aware of which side of the brain you naturally use and then develop (brain exercise!) the other half. This is easier for the right brain people to do as how to use the left is down to organising yourself (which can be done by setting yourself rules, using revision cards etc.... that is what I do). But what do you do to exercise the right brain?

E-mail me with techniques you have used and I will pass them on to other people...