Left Brain… Right Brain… What’s The Difference?
Although there were only four lobes in the cerebral cortex, the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes, each of these lobes was further divided into “left and right” sections. As such, a person had a left frontal lobe and a right frontal lobe, a left temporal lobe and a right temporal lobe, a left parietal lobe and a right parietal lobe, a left occipital lobe, and a right occipital lobe.
Certain critical language and/or communication functions were usually located in a specific part of the brain – either left or right. For example, Wernicke’s area, associated with the understanding of language was located in what was often referred to as the left temporoparietal cortex, whereas Broca’s area, normally associated with the function of speech production, was an area found in the left inferior frontal lobe. Yet, although there were specific regions in the brain associated with specific functions, clearly, the brain had an amazing ability to adapt as evidenced by the fact that when brain trauma occurred, functions could seemingly “relocate” themselves within the brain. Although how the brain accomplished this was not fully understood, this, clearly, was well documented scientifically.
Amazingly, science had confirmed that in some individuals who suffered from a specific type of brain injury known as arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) in the left frontal lobe, believed to occur while still in the womb, when the left frontal lobe was anesthetized, speech production was not impacted as it would be in normal persons and as such, science believed that “speech production functions” in these persons must have somehow “relocated” within the brain. In these same individuals, if the left part of the brain dealing with the understanding of language – Wernicke’s area - was anesthetized, understanding of language was impacted, as it would be in a normal person. Interestingly, researchers found that, in these individuals, those areas activated during language production – as indicated via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – were not in the left hemisphere (where language production usually occurred) - but in the right! In addition, a small area in the left hemisphere not usually associated with language production also appeared to be activated in these individuals.
Persons interested in reading more on this amazing subject and the work of Dr. Ronald M. Lazar of Columbia University’s Department of Neurology and his paper entitled Neuropsychological Function And Brain Arteriovenous Malformations: Redefining Eloquence As A Risk For Treatment, published in Neurosurg Focus 11(5): Article 4, 2001, could do so by going to either http://www.neurosurgery.org/focus/nov01/11-5-4.pdf or, for the easier to understand version, to http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/00/10/brainDamage.html.
Interestingly, when it came to understanding the brain, the whole issue of left verses right certainly appeared to add an extra “twist” for scientists – especially when functions seemingly “relocated” in patients who were known to have brain injury. The issue of the “left brain” verses the “right brain” certainly also had significant implications in the study of autism. In a normal brain, incoming sensory input and control of the body appeared to usually “cross over”. As such, the “left brain” for example, was involved in the processing of sensory input and control of the right side of the body and vice versa. There had been a great deal of research into the “right” verses “left” brain and how dominance of one side appeared to impact the type of person we were. In addition, researchers agreed that there appeared to be gender differences in “right brain” and “left brain” dominance.
For example, according to work done by researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine, males were believed to scan faces with the right brain, whereas females were believed to scan faces with the left brain. [source: D.E. Everhart, J.L. Shucard, T. Quatrin, D.W. Shucard, "Sex-Related Differences in Event-Related Potentials, Face Recognition, and Facial Affect Processing in Prepubertal Children," Neuropsychology, 2001, Vol. 15, No. 3, 329–341, http://unisci.com/stories/20013/0709014.htm].
Given that the left-brain attended to “the whole” whereas the right brain attended to “details”, perhaps this could explain why my son Zachary had such a difficult time with “looking me in the face”. In my second book, Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost!, I had stated that it appeared to me that in order for the child with autism to understand “the whole”, he had to first understand “the parts” that made up “the whole”. As such, if faces were scanned by the “right brain” in boys, it certainly appeared that this was at least in part, an explanation for what I was seeing in my son. If Zachary needed to understand first “the parts” to understand “the whole”, it would make sense that he would have difficulty with faces if they were processed as “wholes” and not “parts”. This whole issue of “left brain” verses “right brain” certainly was an interesting one when it came to understanding children with autism. The following table as it related to “left brain” verses “right brain” was based on work done N. Geschwind, entitled Specializations Of The Human Brain, published in Scientific American, 241, 180-199 in 1979.
I had found this table relating to Geschwind’s work on the website of Macquarie University (Sidney, Austrlia) Department of Linguistics. This website provided a good, easy to understand basic overview entitled “Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology of Speech and Language” and was available at http://www.ling.mq.edu.au/units/sph302/neuroling/ .
A little more research on the Internet provided more still. Other words I had come to understand as being associated with either left or right included:
Again, from the Macquarie University Department of Linguistics website, under a section entitled Sex, Brain and Language”, the following comment was found:
“Springer and Deutsh (1981) discuss evidence for language related sex differences in brain function. There is some evidence that females have a more bilateral (across the two hemispheres) distribution of language functions than males. [end of quote, R. Mannell, Dept. of Linguistics, Macquarie University, http://www.ling.mq.edu.au/units/sph302/neuroling/].
And finally, this quote, regarding lesions to the thalamus, from the same Macquarie University website – I quote:
“Damage here results in verbal fluency and word repetition problems. The thalamus appear to be involved in directing attention to verbal input, in retrieving information from verbal memory and to play some role in the regulation of the activity of speech production muscle activity.” [end of quote R. Mannell, Dept. of Linguistics, Macquarie University, http://www.ling.mq.edu.au/units/sph302/neuroling/].
I had, again, found this very interesting given the thalamus was also known to be involved in matters relating to “the conscious” and “subconscious”. Interestingly, the one sense that could bypass the thalamus was the sense of smell! Note that the sense of smell was also the only sense co-located in the frontal lobe along with “language production” functions. Yet, clearly, the above quote indicated that the thalamus was somehow with speech muscles. Motor functions were also known to be located in the frontal lobe – along with language production and smell, but they were very much “coordinated” by the cerebellum – the very part of the brain so often shown to be much smaller in children with autism in MRIs – the cerebellum – the very part of the brain now believed by Dr. Jay Geidd to take well over twenty years (20) to mature and hence, believed to be more impacted by “environmental factors”. Could those environmental factors include things like mercury, aluminum, iron, and/or viruses? In my opinion, that certainly seemed to be a possibility – especially given the Simpsonwood meeting transcript indicated that developing or immature cells appeared to be the most “susceptible” to mercury injury.
Certainly, the case could be made that if the cerebellum took over twenty (20) years to mature that, at birth, or in a child, this part of the brain certainly had to be among the most immature of the immature cells found in the brain.
As I neared the completion of this book, an article by Geoffrey Cowley had appeared in the September 8th, 2003 edition of Newsweek entitled Girls, Boys and Autism. In this article, the researchers appeared to be arguing that autism was nothing more than a different style of learning and that there might be a “left brain dominance gene” that might help explained autism. Honestly, I could not help but laugh and cry as I read the article. It was, in my opinion, yet another article in a major publication that simply showed how the author, truly, did not understand the many faces of autism and I believed that this article did more harm than good in trying to help the general public understand “autism”. Particularly troubling for most parents was perhaps the following quote from this article in the September 8th, 2003 Newsweek article:
"If Baron-Cohen is right, autism is not just a disease in need of a cure. It's a mental style that people can learn to accommodate. Sometimes it's even a gift." [end of quote, Geoffrey Cowley, Girls, Boys, and Autism, Newsweek, September 8th, 2003].
I could only suggest that Baron-Cohen spend a week or so with the parents and children who had been so devastated by autism. Perhaps that term “gift” would then be changed to a more appropriate word so many parents of children with autism feel they suffer along with their children – “an imprisonment” - because, all too common was the very real fact that the life of not only the child, but of the entire family was stolen by “autism”.
The other very obvious reason that “I did not buy this theory” had to do with the comments made to the effect that this “research” helped explain sensitivities in terms of sensory input – light, sight, sound, touch sensitivity, etc. in children with autism.
The simple fact was that I knew that casein (milk protein) and gluten (grain proteins) were known to act as hallucinogens on the brain of children with autism. When I changed Zachary’s diet, and then, later added enzymes to help break down trace amounts of casein and gluten from hidden sources I may have missed, Zachary’s light, sight, sound and touch sensitivities were greatly reduced. If this “theory” were true, that should not be the case. A change in diet should not change sensory sensitivity and yet, I knew of hundreds of families who had changed the diets of their children and had experienced the same thing I had seen in my son. This had also been the case for families who had engaged in chelation therapy – a process whereby metals were removed from the body. Persons wanting to learn more about that could visit the enzymes and autism or autism and mercury Yahoo groups online at:
There were plenty of parents on these discussion boards who would attest to these facts.
I, personally, thought Baron-Cohen needed to “go back to the drawing board” – in a “major” kind of way! :o)
It has obviously been known for quite some time that there are gender differences in how boys and girls process information, however, that was true of all boys and girls – not just those with autism – and to suggest that “left brain dominance” was related to some kind of a gene that made one more susceptible to autism was in my opinion, simply ludicrous. The differences in left-brain verses right brain dominance have been known for quite some time – as evidenced by the fact that Gerchwind’s work was published in 1979 – close to thirty five (35) years ago. Yet, the fact remained that the explosion in autism was a fairly recent phenomenon and as such, in my opinion, the “left brain” vs “right brain” dominance theory could not possibly be used in explaining the “cause” of autism.
It was also interesting that the Macquire University Department of Linguistics article also stated that brain asymmetry appeared to very much be a function of left or right handedness. How interesting indeed!
I had no doubt that the brain formed more neurons in “the dominant side”. Now, however, more than ever, I questioned many of those studies on brain asymmetry and autism – I still did not know if my son was right or left handed – he did some tasks with one hand, and other tasks with the other.
So, if handedness also played a role in those parts of the brain dealing with language, how did all this fit into “all those studies” on autism and brain asymmetry? It seemed to me that there could be a few “confounding variables” not being taken into consideration in some of those MRI scans or studies stating that “brain asymmetry” was a problem in children with autism.
How did we know that the brain asymmetry seen in these children was not simply the brain “adapting” to compensate for injuries sustained, a brain developing “more neurons” in those areas that worked best in an attempt to “break the code”? In my opinion, brain asymmetry, in and of itself was not necessarily “a bad thing”. It seemed to me that indeed, perhaps the brain had been “designed” to work this way and provided for man a way to somehow adapt to or cope with a brain injury.
Indeed, there certainly appeared to be many “backup systems” in the human body. We had two eyes, two ears, two hands, two arms, two feet, two legs, two kidneys, two ovaries or testicles, two sides to the heart, two lungs… and two parts to the brain… and in all of these, if one part failed, the other was there to help “take over” or assume functions no longer being performed by the “damaged part”. Why should the brain be any different than any other part of the body? Could “asymmetry” in the brain of children with autism not simply be testimony to the marvelous creation that was man himself – especially when it came to – the human brain!
As the mother of a child with autism, I simply did not see brain asymmetry as “a bad thing” and suspected it may actually be just the opposite – a good thing. Of course I was no doctor or neurologist – these were only my opinions!
Certainly, the fact that boys were known to be more left-brain dominant and girls were believed to be more right brain dominant helped us to explain what we saw in these children – but, it certainly did not provide a “cause” for autism. As such, again, I felt Baron-Cohen certainly did need to “go back to the drawing board” – in a “major” kind of way! Based on what I had seen in my son, and the research I had done – as a mother - there assumptions and conclusions had been very much “off base. Funny how there just seemed to be so many studies that stated “autism” was a “gene problem” and yet, no “gene” had been identified for this tremendous impairment of the brain. It just seemed to me that if “a bad gene” was behind all of this – we would have found it by now – because, certainly, something that caused “so much damage” should be fairly obvious as a “mutation”. It just seemed that such a critical mutation would have long ago been identified given all the bright scientists out there.
I guess the best thing I could suggest to those scientists was to read the Simpsonwood transcript and also view that University of Calgary video – perhaps then, the real issues with autism would start to fall a little more “into focus”. We just had too many of these studies I now viewed as “nice try… but now cigar… parents were no longer that naïve!” :o)
In both my second and third books, I had explained how, in my opinion, I could explain almost everything I saw in my son if I assumed little or no communication among the various parts of the brain. I also believed that because of what appeared to be lack of communication among the various parts of the brain, it also seemed as though those functions co-located within a specific part of the brain (i.e., functions within the temporal lobe, etc.) appeared to have magnified communication.
Thus, if my theory were correct, it would make sense that given boys were more “left brain focused”, that these functions would be “more magnified” in the child with autism. Thus, in my opinion, the “left vs right brain dominance theory” helped us to understand what we saw in these children, but it certainly did not provide a “cause” for autism.
As I had stated on so many occasions, it appeared to me that my son perceived the world in “bits and pieces” and that he had to understand “the parts” in order to understand “the whole”. Given the brain structure and function, the theory of little or no communication among the various parts of the brain certainly supported this reasoning. For example, the olfactory cortex and motor functions were found in the frontal lobe. Auditory processing and olfactory processing were found in the temporal lobe. Touch perception was found in the parietal lobe. Visual processing was found in the occipital lobe. As such, sensory input entered the brain in different parts of the brain, and if there was limited or no communication among the various parts of the brain, then, Zachary’s world – his sensory input – could certainly be perceived as “bits and pieces” that he would then have to painstakingly “put together” – consciously - in order to understand the whole.
Note that the integration of sensory input to perceive a single concept was a function located in the parietal lobe. The integration of central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral nervous system (everything else) was a function located in the thalamus. Thus, if input was not flowing properly to these areas due to lack of neural connectivity, surely, one’s world could certainly be perceived as “bits and pieces” that did not appear to fit together properly, and hence, the title of my second book - Breaking The Code To Remove The Shackles Of Autism: When The Parts Are Not Understood And The Whole Is Lost! This issue was also discussed in my third book – Breaking The Code: Putting Pieces In Place! I encouraged all parents to read both of these books in order to better understand why it was that I came to understand those things I did in my son and why I became convinced that the underlying issues in children with autism had to do with severed neural connections that had to somehow be rebuilt – connections that would help the “left” and “right” brain work together in a more efficient and effective manner.
As I looked at these various words used to describe “left brain” or “right brain” dominance, although there obviously were some things that indicated Zachary had “dominance” for certain things on the “right side”, clearly, in looking at this list, my son was “left brain focused”.
As such parents had to have an understanding of the “dominant” side of their child in order to best help that child learn. The “cookie cutter” one method for all simply could not be used for children with autism. Clearly, some children could be more “right brain” focused while others – like Zachary, and I suspected most boys – could be more “left brain” focused. Likewise, I very much suspected girls were more “right brain dominant”. As such, perhaps the key to helping these children was to also consider materials for either “left” or “right” dominant focused children.
These children had so many challenges to face that it was in working with their strengths that they could best be helped to begin to decode their world. As more of the “code to life” was broken it would then be easier for these children to come to use “less dominant” functions in order to come to an even greater understanding of their world. I just felt that to use those things that were “less dominant” or “weaker areas” in a child would not be as effective as using those functions in which a child was known to be “strong or dominant”. In my opinion, to reach a child with autism, you had to make things as easy as possible initially, and then, as the child began to communicate and understand his world, you could then go from there to strengthen areas of greater weakness.
As I looked at this list to describe “left brain” vs “right brain”, clearly, although Zachary was more “left brain” focused in my opinion, there were some things that were critical in which he clearly was more “right brain focused”. For example, the fact that Zachary loved seeing me use “signs” or “motions” for language told me that in this particular aspect, he was more “right brain focused” when it came to language. Also, if given a choice, I knew Zachary preferred to have soft music playing while he also worked on the computer, again, indicating more strength in this particular function on the right side of the brain. The one thing that certainly “stood out” as I looked at all this information, however, was the fact that Zachary - overwhelmingly – had left brain dominance. Very, very few things on the “right side” applied to Zachary – yet, the critical one having to do with language, again, was that involving motion in speech – of that – there was absolutely no doubt in my mind! Surely the fact that the “left brain” was so dominant in Zachary had to impact the numbers of neural connections and hence, neural growth, in very specific parts of the brain – and thus, brain asymmetry.
One could certainly get lost in “all those brain studies”, however, my point here was simply to raise the issue that there were many factors that played into brain asymmetry – including things like left or right handedness – things that in and of themselves, appeared to have very little to do with autism in and of itself. Certainly, these factors had to be considered, however, in looking at issues of brain asymmetry and left or right brain dominance. As such, I encouraged all parents to be cautious of studies on brain asymmetry to ensure that such variables had been taken into consideration. There were many, many other issues pertaining to “brain studies” I felt parents should be aware of. These had been provided in my second book – in a section entitled, “All Those Brain Studies… What Do They Really Tell Us?”.
As I thought about so many issues relating to autism, clearly, there was simply no denying that Zachary, indeed, was very much “left brain dominant”. Without a doubt, he was very much a boy that thrived on rules!
Zachary’s tremendous need for having things “fit together properly” when it came to language was clearly evident in something he had asked me to do lately. As I made my bed one morning, Zachary was near the window, looking outside as he recited his alphabet – something he still liked to do now and then. On this particular occasion, however, he realized there was something that was “not quite right” when it came to the alphabet and how it worked.
When Zachary got to the letter “w”, he hesitated and said: “mom, spell w… starts with a – “d”…”. Of course, I knew right away what the issue was. Before I answered, even though I knew myself to be more of a “right brain” person and as such, more impulsive, I knew that for “this answer”, I had to think a little more before I responded.
I could not simply spell “w” as “w”… because clearly, Zachary had picked up on the fact that “w” had a sound that started with a “d”. As such, I said: “double equals 2, “w” equals 2 “v’s” or 2 “u’s” put together… w… “d-o-u-b-l-e” spells “double” … double… u… the letter has a sound like a “u”, but it looks like a “ v + v… 2 “v”s together…” but it says “wuh”…. And there I had it, the spelling for “w”… only in spelling “w”, I had to provide a “spelling” to match the fact that it started with a “d”, a “sound” for the letter itself that “sounded” like a “u”, a “look” that “looked” like a “double v”... and the phonics for a letter that said “wuh”!
Only “w” , “y” and “h” were letters of the alphabet for which the phonics were very different than the letter as it would be recited in the alphabet. Zachary had not yet picked up on the fact that the letter “y” was also an “oddball letter” because that letter, when recited as part of the alphabet, had a name with a sound that started with the sound for “w”… “wuh”. Likewise he had not picked up on the fact that “h” really sounded like a letter starting with an “a + ch” sound.
All other letters were recited or “named” in the alphabet in a way that very much matched the actual phonics for that letter. Certainly, there were a few very subtle differences, but, they were so subtle, that Zachary had really not noticed them – at least not yet!
Of course, when I finished giving Zachary “the spelling of – w”, I also made it a point to tell him this was a “mixed up letter”. He had a good understanding of what “mixed up” meant and so he found it very funny when I told him, “w is such a mixed up letter… it’s so silly…”. This little example had clearly showed me that for Zachary, rules were very important - as were sounds – in the understanding of language!
As I thought about this, I could not help but wonder who the genius was that had named a letter that looked like “2 v’s” stuck together a “double u”. I thought, surely, he could have called it at least a “double v”. But, then, I soon realized that in writing this letter, it was often written in a “curved” manner so that it could actually look like either two “v’s” or two “u’s” stuck together. As such, I decided to add a little more to the spelling of “w” for Zachary – only this additional explanation involved motion to help him understand the issue. As I explained “double equals 2” and said “double u” equals “2 u’s” or 2 v’s”, I literally motioned the formation of “2 u’s together” in the air to form “w” in a “curved” way and then did the same thing to show “2 v’s” as I showed Zachary it could be either one or the other.
Having gone through this little “spell w” exercise made me think that, perhaps, we should rename this letter - “wobble u” or “wobble v”. :o)
Who would ever have thought that “spell w” could be so complicated! Yet, clearly, Zachary, a very “left brain” child, needed “an entire explanation” for this very odd letter… one of only a few letters that obviously had a sound that did not match the “recited or named alphabet letter”.
Although there was still disagreement on this issue, it seemed many in science were indicating that boys were indeed generally more “left brain focused” than were girls and that girls were more “right brain focused”. If that were true, it certainly had some rather interesting implications. For example, if one was more “creative” or “right brain dominant”, as opposed to “left brain dominant”, did that not mean that persons who were “right brain dominant” would have a better ability to “think for themselves” whereas those who were “left brain focused” would be more dependent on “rules” or things they had been taught? This certainly made me chuckle given the fact I constantly joked and reminded my husband of the fact that God did not see his creation as “just right” until after he had created woman – that partner in life who provided “balance” for man and was always more than happy (that would be the emotional side to woman) to provide input (that would be the creative side to woman) to allow “man” see things in a whole new light. :o)
Again… all very interesting… and a little funny… indeed! As I considered all this, I also could not help but think about how all this related to functions that were co-located within specific parts of the brain. For example, language production and motor activity were co-located in the frontal lobe. Zachary, clearly a “left brain dominant” child still clearly was absolutely impacted by the use of motions in language production and the understanding of language. As I had stated earlier, he absolutely loved anything that had to do with motion in communication, whether that was in teaching him new words or in communication as play or some other activity.
For example, if my husband rubbed his hands together in anticipation of “going after Zachary to catch him”, Zachary became very, very excited and just loved that “motion” on the part of my husband as he played with Zachary. So many of these “small things” I never would have noticed before now leaped out at me as I considered the area of communication and how Zachary reacted to various forms of communication – written, verbal/auditory, sight, motion. Of these, clearly motion involving the hands and auditory forms of communication were those that most impacted Zachary as we worked with him.
Given production of language was co-located with motion in the frontal lobe and auditory processing was co-located in the temporal lobe along with the understanding of language, of course, that made sense. It also made sense to me that communication involving the perception of body parts (i.e., sign language or motion of the hands) would help with the understanding of language given that function (perception of body parts) was also in the temporal lobe. This also certainly helped explain why “body language” helped with the understanding of language or could be such a powerful means of non-verbal communication. Likewise, the recognition of faces was located in the temporal lobe and memory related to the recognition of faces was in the right temporal lobe. Thus, again, given the understanding of language was in the temporal lobe, did it not make sense that we best understood those we recognized and did it not make sense that our “socialization” functions as they related to others would “work best” when interacting with those we recognized – such as family members and/or friends.
There was no denying that the study of language as it related to language production and comprehension was very interesting indeed when one considered the many, many variables that played into “communication” – motor activity, muscle functions, emotions, smells, tastes, touch, body language and/or other visual cues, memories, imagination, and possibly conscious and/or subconscious communication, etc. Human communication certainly was fascinating to say the least!