Saturday, February 5, 2011

Left-brain drain?

I'm not a great multi-tasker, nor a great socialite.

In fact, I've come to dislike certain busy social situations in which concentration is not possible. Neither do I enjoy messy, disorganized discussions. As Faculty Moderator of Unity College, I'm known for following rules of procedure and getting through the agenda on time.

What I do enjoy is complex, multiply-interlinked kinds of problems in which the dynamics of systems are involved, especially when geography and landscape are also involved, and the bulk of my higher education, in biology, economics, modeling, and related reasoning and problem solving, emphasized complex systems analysis of one kind or another, often related to landscape and geography.

Deep concentration is required for these kinds of problems, as well as a facility with numbers and complex quantification. I love nothing better than to sit down for hours or days on end with spreadsheets, statistical software, GIS, or modeling programs and sometimes all four at once, open and running hot, trying to work through some such problem.

These kinds of problems are like jigsaw puzzles to me. I really get into them. It's an altered state. I can absorb myself for hours and even days or weeks.

I never used to enjoy mathematics, though. I took until my mid-thirties to develop a facility with applied mathematics and modeling. I was in graduate school before I became any good at it, or began to enjoy it. I hated math in high school and junior college (which for me was a military college). There was something about the way it was taught, particularly algebra, that just didn't penetrate.

It took me years to realize that all those math teachers were just terribly poor at translating, from math to English and back again.

The reason I hated algebra was because it was so abstractly taught, and taught in it's own language, tautologically but not teleologically; it meant nothing real to me. No end use in sight.

And the reason it was taught this way was, simply, it meant nothing at all to anyone in the room. Not even the people at the front of the classroom. The teachers didn't really know what it was used for either!

Eventually I got into advanced university classes with professors who could show me the purpose of it all and make it useful.

So now I'm at the front, I take great pains to continually translate back and forth between math and English for all my students, so they can begin to learn the language of math for themselves, and do their own translating, and connect the math we learn to real-life problems, to show them what it's used for.

I notice, though, that there are some folks, some of my students or some of the people I encounter in my renewable energy work, who just can't concentrate enough on a problem for long enough to begin to master the long, looping chains of logic that are required.

I also notice that these folks are often more likely to be gregarious, social types, with warm and pleasant personalities, who like nothing better than to chit-chat and converse.

I don't think there are many of my colleagues who consider me warm and gregarious.

And while I enjoy conversation, I'm much better one-on-one, and much happier when the conversation is real and even deep, about something interesting or problematic.

So is this the old myth of left-brain/right brain dichotomy?

I was thinking about this recently while observing some students who are poor at math and modeling problems, but good at conversation and communication. And I thought, "If I'm to teach these kinds of difficult problems, I really ought to know what to expect from different types of students."

So I went to Wikipedia, to see what I could find on "lateralization of brain function."

To begin, the article spends quite a bit of text debunking the myth:

"Broad generalizations are often made in popular psychology about certain functions (eg. logic, creativity) being lateralised, that is, located in the right or left side of the brain. These ideas need to be treated carefully because the popular lateralizations are often distributed across both sides."

But then, down below, we read this:

"Linear reasoning and language functions such as grammar and vocabulary often are lateralized to the left hemisphere of the brain. Dyscalculia is a neurological syndrome associated with damage to the left temporo-parietal junction. This syndrome is associated with poor numeric manipulation, poor mental arithmetic skill, and the inability to either understand or apply mathematical concepts.

"In contrast, prosodic language functions, such as intonation and accentuation, often are lateralized to the right hemisphere of the brain. The processing of visual and audiological stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception, and artistic ability seem to be functions of the right hemisphere. Depression is linked with a hyperactive right hemisphere, with evidence of selective involvement in "processing negative emotions, pessimistic thoughts and unconstructive thinking styles", as well as vigilance, arousal and self-reflection, and a relatively hypoactive left hemisphere, "specifically involved in processing pleasurable experiences" and "relatively more involved in decision-making processes". Additionally, "left hemisphere lesions result in an omissive response bias or error pattern whereas right hemisphere lesions result in a commissive response bias or error pattern." The delusional misidentification syndromes reduplicative paramnesia and Capgras delusion are also often the result of right hemisphere lesions. There is some evidence that the right hemisphere is more involved in processing novel situations, while the left hemisphere is most involved when routine or well rehearsed processing is called for.

"Other integrative functions, including arithmetic, binaural sound localization, and emotions (lateralization of emotion), seem more bilaterally controlled."

So should my students that can't concentrate on math and modeling problems, and that can't reason well, but that are warm and chatty, "sociable" types be perhaps considered "right-brained" individuals, while I'm "left-brained"?

And is it unfair or even cruel to try to teach them this kind of stuff at all?

As the article implies, this is far too simplistic and overreaching, and seems also to present an excuse that applied math and modeling ought not be taught at all to some kinds of students, especially in required classes, which is where I mostly teach it.

Obviously, everyone should try to learn a little math. Even the most tortured of artists must balance a checkbook.

And those of us with the other hemispheric bias clearly ought not be encouraged by society to be so left-brained that we can't make civil conversation, or appreciate art or theatre.

But taken with a pinch of salt, it does seem moderately useful.

At the very least, it explains a few things that I see in my work.

And it certainly seems that there are some possibly extreme kinds of folks who shouldn't try to do some kinds of things. I may even be one such type myself. You'd never get me to take on a job where I had to socialize or be nice to people all of the time.

I'd hate it. Particularly if it involved a lot of large groups.

Likewise, if you're a chatty, sociable, multitasking type, you probably shouldn't become a climate or economic modeler.

But I don't think history is destiny. You can do mental push-ups as well as physical ones, put your mind on a training plan, make yourself do a daily work-out.

Think of it this way: If you were looking to get in shape, you might join a fitness class or get a personal trainer.

If you need to learn to use or grow your mathematical and systems reasoning, you might take a class in modeling or some other applied math.

And I suppose, too, if I really had to, I could learn to like social occasions a little more.

If you made me.

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