Avoid Believing these Common Neuroscience Myths (Part 4/4)

In three previous stories, I summarised what Ray Dalio’s book Principles attempts to achieve, reviewed the concepts that resonated most strongly with me, and argued that emphasis on personality profiling within companies is misplaced, and besides, carries clear risks for the employee, organisation and society that are often overlooked, minimised or otherwise misunderstood.

Here, in my final installment, I settle in on my own area of expertise: neuroscience. Prior to focusing 100% of my time at Mobio Interactive, I was a Principal Investigator of Neuroscience at the Zurich Psychiatric Hospital. For those interested, a summary of my published works can be found on Google Scholar.

To put it crudely, despite all his successes and breadth of knowledge, Dalio sucks at neuroscience. This in and of itself isn’t a problem; it’s of no fault of his own that he’s not an expert in neuroscience. But it is his fault that he perpetuates myths in his (otherwise phenomenal) book Principles. I take it as my job to bust these myths, and I hope to spare everyone reading this from making Dalio’s mistakes.

On the whole, Dalio demonstrates an extremely poor understanding of the brain and uses outdated illustrations for how the mind works. I found these sections of his book harmfully oversimplified, and in two cases dead-wrong.

First, his generalisations of “introverts” vs “extroverts” and other false dichotomies are a mathematically incorrect reductionist view of human behaviour and character. As I have already articulated in Part 3/4 of this series, circumstance and environment are, by and large, more reliable determinants of human behaviour than any artificial partition in personality type (or as some might put it, “brain dominance” or whatever). We may therefore reposition our focus to support better environments at work, while paying especially close attention to the various situations and stimuli that our teams intercept.

As Seneca told us two millennia ago,“in every one of us nature has laid the foundations or sown the seeds of the virtues. We are born to them all, all of us, and when a person comes along with the necessary stimulus, then those qualities of the personality are awakened, so to speak, from their slumber.” Seneca, through observation and an understanding of philosophy, came to believe like I, through observation and an understanding of neuroscience, in a near limitless potential within every human mind — potential awakened by stimulus and supported by environment.

The entire notion of Dalio’s personality profiling is based off an unproven (and in my view, rather repulsive) assertion that people belong to certain archetypes emergent from various contrived dichotomies (childish would-be antonyms like introvert vs extrovert, thinking vs feeling, or planning vs perceiving), that in practice do not actually exist in any truly meaningful way, despite decades of research by psychologists. Doesn’t anyone wonder with me, if these archetypes indeed do exist, why haven’t we cleanly mapped them out? How could it be that after all this time, we are presented with a field laden with obscene and contradicting frameworks? Could it be we are searching for something that simply isn’t there?

Indeed, Dalio makes a grave mistake in suggesting that there is good neuroscience to back-up his personality profiling scheme.

But his second mistake is worse. In Principles, Dalio perpetuates the left/right brain myth. He — like many pop culture readers — incorrectly interprets the work of Nobel Laureate Roger Sperry as evidence that people are either left- or right-brained and thus, by binary extension, logically- or emotionally-dominant thinkers. This is a persistent misconception of the brain. In fact, it is dead-wrong. Let me repeat that. It is dead-wrong.

What Sperry’s research actually demonstrated is that the brain has something called “functional lateralisation.” Functional lateralisation means that the brain is not functionally symmetrical on its left and right sides. In other words, our cognitive functions tend to prefer a side. While the left side of any brain may be used for certain cognitive functions, the right side of the brain may be used for other cognitive functions. While we are all asymmetrically-inclined, the side our functions fall on is largely unique to the individual.

For example, the left side of your brain might be devoted to certain task-specific “logical” or “linear” functions, while the right side could be devoted to “emotional” or “lateral” functions in a given experiment. A particular function for you could also be balanced laterally across your hemispheres, and even more likely, some specific subsets of “logical” thinking are found on your right side, while another subset may be traced to the left. What does this mean for Dalio? The functions he indicates as “left-brained” may actually be located within the right side of your brain, and vice versa. He is mistaken in locating cognitive functions so absolutely.

Sperry did not identify left-brained or right-brained people, and it is anyways logically incorrect to conclude that lateralisation should lead to left-brained or right-brained people. All Sperry observed is that there is a higher likelihood for certain functions to be found on one side or the other, for the specific types of tasks that he was performing on split-brain patients more than fifty years ago. In fact, based on more recent (and more accurate) research, we now know that in any given individual, both hemispheres usually share the workload inherent to both “logical” and “emotional” thinking. Creativity, for example, arises from elevated connectivity throughout the brain. Creativity, therefore, is not at all about using the right or the left side your brain, as some might assume from Dalio’s explanations. Just because we think some people are more logical than others, does not mean that they use one side of their brain more than the other side. Neuroimaging studies have failed to find any evidence for any “healthy” individual that preferentially uses one hemisphere more than the other.

All-in, I found it troubling, though not entirely surprising, how poorly Dalio appreciates the subtleties and intricacies of the brain, especially when compared to how confidently he seems to be in his (mis)understanding, and how much he attributes his success to this (mis)understanding. How can Dalio read a book on habit written by a journalist and take the information within as believable? What significant accomplishments has Duhigg made in the field of neuroscience? Why does Dalio fail to follow the advice that he so carefully articulates to us? I would be baffled by this behaviour even more if I wasn’t already accustomed to a public that is alarmingly neuroscience-illiterate (by no fault of our own). We teach children there are only five senses. No, there are eight. A lot of people think that we only use 10% of our brain. Myth. Even more people believe the location of Earth in its annual orbit around the sun has some kind of magical influence over our character. Dead-wrong.

With so much neuroscience nonsense floating about, should I be surprised that even somebody as well-read and successful as Dalio still believes in ideas originating erroneously from research completed at the dawn of neuroscience, during a time when psychotherapists were obsessed with childhood constipation and maternal sexual fantasy?

Think about the idea that one side of a person’s brain is more active than the other. Think about this idea in its plainest terms for just a second. Think how inefficient it would it be to keep fuelling two sides of the brain when you’re mostly using just one side.

Do yourself a favour here and now, once and for all. If you’ve not already, please internalise that there is no such thing as a left-brain or a right-brain person. Not you. Not your mom. Not your spouse. Believing this myth is akin to believing in astrology or alchemy. And if you still believe in these antiquated pseudosciences, then I hope you enjoy your crumpets at the tea table with Alice and the Hatter, because you’re mad.

In Dalio’s futile quest to find simplistic approximations in his universe, he misses some fundamental points about the mind and grossly underestimates the level of diversity and plasticity within the brain. But if it’s simplicity we’re after, then let’s reduce my own thoughts down to this:

While Dalio doesn’t get absolutely everything about the brain dead-wrong, it’s clear that he’s not a believable person on the subject. So take his earlier advice, and weigh his opinions on neuroscience accordingly. Focus elsewhere. This is what I learned from Principles.

Credits: The photo used in this story was captured by the author. Copy and line editing completed by Prof. Judith Scholes of Cascadia Editors Collective.

Neuroscientist & CEO @ Mobio Interactive. I support my team in the pursuit of effective and accessible healthcare for every human.

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