Right brain, left brain, creativity and more

The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty
Edwards

Extracts

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I believe, was one
of the first practical educational applications of Roger
Sperry’s pioneering insight into the dual nature of human
thinking—verbal, analytic thinking mainly located in the
left hemisphere, and visual, perceptual thinking mainly
located in the right hemisphere. Since 1979, many writers
in other fields have proposed applications of the research,
each in turn suggesting new ways to enhance both thinking
modes, thereby increasing potential for personal growth.

Like other global skills—for example, reading, driving,
skiing, and walking—drawing is made up of component skills
that become integrated into a whole skill. Once you have
learned the components and have integrated them, you can
draw—just as once you have learned to read, you know how to
read for life; once you have learned to walk, you know how
to walk for life. You don’t have to go on forever adding
additional basic skills. Progress takes the form of
practice, refinement of technique, and learning what to use
the skills for.

This was an exciting discovery because it meant that a
person can learn to draw within a reasonably short time.

Five basic skills of drawing The global skill of drawing a
perceived object, person, landscape (something that you see
“out there”) requires only five basic component skills, no
more. These skills are not drawing skills. They are
perceptual skills, listed as follows:
One: the perception of edges
Two: the perception of spaces
Three: the perception of relationships
Four: the perception of lights and shadows
Five: the perception of the whole, or gestalt

I am aware, of course, that additional basic skills are
required for imaginative, expressive drawing leading to
“Art with a capital A.” Of these, I have found two and only
two additional skills: drawing from memory and drawing from
imagination. And there remain, naturally, many techniques
of drawing—many ways of manipulating drawing mediums and
endless subject matter, for example. But, to repeat, for
skilful realistic drawing of one’s perceptions, using
pencil on paper, the five skills I will teach you in this
book provide the required perceptual training.

Those five basic skills are the prerequisites for effective
use of the two additional “advanced” skills, and the set of
seven may constitute the entire basic global skill of
drawing. Many books on drawing actually focus mainly on the
two advanced skills.

In order to gain access to the sub-dominant visual,
perceptual R-mode of the brain, it is necessary to present
the brain with a job that the verbal, analytic L-mode will
turn down. For most of us, L-mode thinking seems easy,
normal, and familiar (though perhaps not for many children
and dyslexic individuals). The perverse R-mode strategy, in
contrast, may seem difficult and unfamiliar—even “off-the-
wall.” It must be learned in opposition to the “natural”
tendency of the brain to favour L-mode because, in general,
language dominates. By learning to control this tendency
for specific tasks, one gains access to powerful brain
functions often obscured by language.

In short, in the process of learning to draw, one also
learns to control (at least to some degree) the mode by
which one’s own brain handles information. Perhaps this
explains in part why my book appeals to individuals from
such diverse fields. Intuitively, they see the link to
other activities and the possibility of seeing things
differently by learning to access R-mode at conscious
level.

Over the past decade or so, a new interdisciplinary field
of brain-function study has become formally known as
cognitive neuroscience. In addition to the traditional
discipline of neurology, cognitive neuroscience encompasses
study of other higher cognitive processes such as language,
memory, and perception. Computer scientists, linguists,
neuro-imaging scientists, cognitive psychologists, and
neurobiologists are all contributing to a growing
understanding of how the human brain functions.

Interest in “right brain, left brain” research has subsided
somewhat among educators and the general public since Roger
Sperry first published his research findings. Nevertheless,
the fact of the profound asymmetry of human brain functions
remains, becoming ever more central, for example, among
computer scientists trying to emulate human mental
processes. Facial recognition, a function ascribed to the
right hemisphere, has been sought for decades and is still
beyond the capabilities of most computers.

Ray Kurzweil, in his recent book The Age of Spiritual
Machines (Viking, 1999) contrasted human and computer
capability in pattern seeking (as in facial recognition)
and sequential processing (as in calculation):

The human brain has about 100 billion neurons. With an
estimated average of one thousand connections between each
neuron and its neighbours, we have about 100 trillion
connections, each capable of a simultaneous calculation.
That’s rather massive parallel processing, and one key to
the strength of human thinking. A profound weakness,
however, is the excruciatingly slow speed of neural
circuitry, only 200 calculations per second. For problems
that benefit from massive parallelism, such a neural-net-
based pattern recognition, the human brain does a great
job. For problems that require extensive sequential
thinking, the human brain is only mediocre, (p. 103)

This experience is often moving and deeply affecting. My
students’ most frequent comments after learning to draw are
“Life seems so much richer now” and “I didn’t realize how
much there is to see and how beautiful things are.” This
new way of seeing may alone be reason enough to learn to
draw.

Drawing is a curious process, so intertwined with seeing
that the two can hardly be separated. Ability to draw
depends on ability to see the way an artist sees, and this
kind of seeing can marvellously enrich your life.