Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Both Sides Now: Visualizing and Drawing with the Right and Left Hemispheres of the Brain

Academic journal article Studies in Art Education

Both Sides Now: Visualizing and Drawing with the Right and Left Hemispheres of the Brain

Article excerpt

With over 125,000 copies printed in ten languages, Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1979, 1989, 1999) has influenced art education and permeated popular culture. Believing that the ability to draw "realistically" is a skill available to anyone rather than a matter of intrinsic talent, Edwards created drawing exercises based on the assumption that suppressing the dominant left hemisphere of the brain would engage the spatial abilities she attributed to the right hemisphere of the brain. Her approach supported the significance of art in the curriculum by asserting that the development of both right and left sides of the brain was vital for education, a tenet of the whole brain movement that criticized educational systems for traditionally emphasizing left brain functions identified with reading, writing, and mathematics. However, art teachers today who enlist the right brain model to argue for more funding or a stronger art curriculum may inadvertently fuel arguments for srronger science education. Cognitive neuroscience studies since 1995 not only have reinforced the role of both sides of the brain in vision, but also have provided data to reassess "realistic art" as a cultural choice rather than a replication of vision. Educators who understand how we see will be less likely to confuse Western art conventions with what we see. Characteristics viewed by Edwards and others as developmental stages belong to normal vision. For example, in our brains, we see objects through multiple points of view as well as their relative position in space. Human vision is not a panoramic snapshot of our environment, but a strategic process designed to provide vital information for our survival. Greater awareness of the science of vision provides an opportunity for educators to rethink assumptions about visual perception and realism in art.

Edwards based her approach on scientific tesearch conducted by Sperry (1968, 1973) and his associates in the 1960s and 1970s, but while she assured readers in the 1999 edition that her approach continues to be supported by scientific research, this "revised and updated" version, like the 1989 edition, did not contain new scientific research in the bibliography.' The scientific method has been designed to continually test hypotheses, discarding assumptions no longer supported by experimental data. In Left Brain, Right Brain. Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience, Springer and Deutsch (1998) criticized Edwards' links between her drawing exercises and split-brain research because her theories had not been tested by research experiments and her application of split-brain research to drawing technique far exceeded the available scientific evidence.2 In the same year Taylor (1998) compared whether sixth-grade students improved their drawing ability by using the inverted drawing in Edwards' book or the standard view and found no significant difference in drawing ability.

Edwards' approach became part of a wave of popular right brain and whole brain self-help books characterized by scientists Hugdahl and Davidson in The Asymmetrical Brain (2003) as "folk psychology " (p. 10) and by Hellige in Hemispheric Asymmetry (1993) as "misleading at best and fictitious at worst" (p. 3). In a cultural history of asymmetry in hands and brains, McManus (2002) relegated Edwards' book to a chapter entitled "Vulgar Errors" and dismissed hemispheric brain theory as a "deeply flawed" product of the 1 960s refuted by brain scan research (p. 298). Writing for educators, Sylwester (1995) characterized right brain theory as a "pseudoscien tifie fad" (p. 6) and Bruer (1999) concluded that brain-based education represents a simplistic mix of "fact, misinterpretation and speculation" that "will not die" (p. 650).

This article moves beyond previous criticism of Edwards by addressing specific assumptions about right and left brain dichotomies and "realistic" art in terms of neuroscience experiments on vision. …

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