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LeftBrain RightBrain

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This page derives some practical guidelines for modelling from some random snippets of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science. Context - Modelling

Division of Mental Labour


Words & Pictures

Interviews & Workshops

Creativity & Order

Balance: Tips & Pitfalls

The Power of Positive Thinking

Contradiction between Left and Right


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Context - Modelling

veryard projects > demanding change > balance > LeftBrain RightBrain > context

This page derives some practical guidelines for modelling from some random snippets of philosophy, psychology and cognitive science.

Let’s start by explaining what kind of modelling we’re talking about. These are models used by management consultants and software engineers, among others, as practical steps in practical projects.

A model is a constructed description of something – for example, a situation, a requirement, a solution, an artefact, a system. A model describes something using a set of constructs, related together to form a coherent whole. Formal models use a fixed set of constructs, predefined in some modelling language (and perhaps supported by standard notations, formal syntax and semantics, and modelling tools).

Among other things, models may describe business relationships and organizations, social systems and networks, or technological systems and networks. They may describe static structures, dynamic processes, or controlling policies.

Models may be developed for various purposes: planning, design, risk management, change management – or for building further models. For example, a model of a situation or requirement may be used to build a model of a solution or artefact that fits this situation or requirement. Or a risk model may be used to construct a policy model.

Models may be developed by an individual and used for some private purpose. More often, they are developed by groups of people to be used collectively, and represent a shared understanding of something. They are then used to communicate this understanding to others – and this may lead to various forms of negotiation: enrichment, extension, modification or rejection of the model.
more Notes on Modelling

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Division of Mental Labour

veryard projects > demanding change > balance > LeftBrain RightBrain > division of mental labour

According to a popular theory of the brain, it is divided into two halves: Right Brain and Left Brain. Each is responsible for different aspects of the mental functioning of the person. The Right Brain is responsible for understanding spatial relationships and thinks in pictures, while the Left Brain is responsible for understanding time, sequential logic and language, and thinks in words. The Right Brain is holistic and intuitive, while the Left Brain is analytic and procedural.

There are various types of psychometric classification that might loosely map to this theory. For example, the Myers-Briggs classification involves a split between Intuitive (N) and Systematic (S) thinkers, which could be interpreted as a preference for Right Brain versus Left Brain thinking in our terms.
more Personality Classification

For the purposes of describing the outward manifestations of brain functioning, the terms Left and Right are merely convenient labels, which may or may not correspond to specific physical locations of specific neurological process under the skull (or elsewhere).

In some versions of the theory, the Right Brain is associated with the unconscious and with emotions, while the Left Brain is associated with the conscious, "rational" side of the intellect. There are also some grossly simplistic gender stereotypes that accuse men of being Left Brain dominated, and women of being Right Brain dominated. (On this point, it is worth noting that two of the activities most often cited as "evidence" that the brains of men and women are constructed differently – map reading, and the verbal expression of emotions – require both Left Brain and Right Brain working harmoniously together.)

In this piece, I attempt to use the terms Left Brain and Right Brain without implying any of these associations. I choose to regard Left Brain and Right Brain as different styles of thinking, found in both men and women. Although some people (encouraged by family, education, gender stereotypes and social conditioning) may have learned to prefer one style over another, I prefer to assume that everyone with a normal undamaged brain is capable of both styles.

I also assume that Left Brain and Right Brain are in general equally valuable and important, although Left Brain or Right Brain may be of greater value in a particular context. Clearly there are some specific tasks where Left Brain thinking may be more successful than Right Brain thinking, and vice versa. There are also many tasks where both Left Brain and Right Brain thinking are required. In situations where there is an existing predominance of Left Brain thinking, a Right Brain intervention may be valuable to restore the balance, and vice versa.

Although IQ tests may have little to do with true intelligence, it is worth noting that these tests typically include spatial reasoning as well as verbal reasoning, and therefore demand both Right Brain and Left Brain skills.

Successful modelling certainly requires both Left Brain and Right Brain thinking,
more Notes on Intelligence
Notes on Modelling

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veryard projects > demanding change > balance > LeftBrain RightBrain > negation

Some people think of the Right Brain (or the Unconscious) as illiterate - inspired but dumb, like Harpo Marx. This is much too simple. Many people report the presence of words in their dreams. Furthermore, people often have immediate physical reflex responses to certain words. We may therefore suppose that the Right Brain can recall and respond to words. What the Right Brain seems unable to do is to create or respond to syntax.

(Lacan said that the Unconscious was structured like a language. But if this is so, it is a language with a defective syntax, at least if we judge by conventional Left Brain standards.)

For the Left Brain, negation is purely a syntactical construct, as are other logical words such as always and impossible. This syntactic meaning of negation is inaccessible to the Right Brain. You cannot have negative images (at least, not simple straightfoward ones).

Thus the Right Brain must either ignore little words like ‘not’ or respond to them as pure affect. But since change requires motivation, and motivation comes from the Right Brain, you need a positive image to motivate the Right Brain to achieve change.

Suppose someone wants to give up smoking. The more he thinks about not seeing the cigarette in his hand, not feeling and tasting the smoke in his throat, the more vivid the mental images of smoking become, which then frustrates the attempt to give up. This is one of a class of frustrations, including insomnia: the harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. (Is negative thinking always doomed to frustration? We shall see.)

It is a curious fact that hypnotism seems to work. One suggested explanation for the curious effectiveness of hypnotism is that it is a mode of communication that manages to by-pass the Left Brain (conscious) and communicate directly with the Right Brain (unconscious).

One technique of hypnotism is to embed positive suggestions within negative sentences. Thus the sentence "Given your background, I doubt whether you will believe that this will work in your particular case." will be heard by the Left Brain as a negative statement. But the Right Brain ignores all the syntactic complications, hears the embedded suggestion "Believe that this will work", and sometimes obeys. (The more complications in the sentence the better, because it reduces the chances that the clever Left Brain will detect what is going on, and intervene to protect the innocent Right Brain from being ordered around by the hypnotist.)

Most people inadvertently use this technique to disastrous effect. They say "Don’t worry." to their parents, and "Don’t be clumsy" to their children, and wonder how come their parents worry more than ever, and their children get clumsier than ever. Hypnotists explain this by pointing out that the Right Brain is following the positive suggestion, not the negative envelope.
more Power of Positive Thinking
Power of Negative Thinking

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Words & Pictures

veryard projects > demanding change > balance > LeftBrain RightBrain > words & pictures

"A picture tells a thousand words." This is a typical Right Brain protest against the documents typically produced by Left Brain thinkers – sometimes hundreds of pages of verbal description and specification, with no diagrams whatsoever. These documents were once standard practice in the computing industry, and there was a strong push by the proponents of so-called structured methods in the 1970s and 1980s towards documents that included diagrams. The argument was that these documents described the structure of something and that it was often hard work to understand this structure without any diagrams. A good set of diagrams made the underlying structure explicit. This explicit structure was called a model.

Notice that I’ve been careful not to equate the diagrams with the model. Many people were not so careful. They started to talk as if all you needed was a set of simple diagrams. Lots of new methods appeared, producing a wide range of line-and-box diagrams. Software tools were developed, allowing you to draw and edit these diagrams on a computer screen, store them electronically, and print them in a format that seemed to convey finality.

The trouble was that lots of these line-and-box diagrams were literally meaningless. They had no proper semantics, boxes had labels that weren’t explained anywhere, and the lines often had no labels at all. The computer industry polarized into Right Brain thinkers, who produced diagrams without adequate explanations, and Left Brain thinkers, who couldn’t be bothered to make sense of the diagrams so they simply ignored them. Right Brain teams within large computer departments were dedicated to producing "models" with vague and sweeping content, and calling them "architectures" and "plans". Meanwhile, Left Brain thinkers prided themselves on their grasp of detail, which they loaded into increasingly complicated and eventually unmanageable systems.

This polarization led to the complementary slogan, which I first heard uttered by Kirsten Nygaard (father of Object-Orientated Programming) at a conference in Berlin in 1989, and which I quoted in my 1992 book: "A word tells a thousand pictures." Among other things, this can be understood to mean that a clear abstraction is better than any number of random diagrams.
more Notes on Abstraction
Lumpers & Splitters

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Interviews & Workshops

veryard projects > demanding change > balance > LeftBrain RightBrain > interviews & workshops

Modellers have two primary methods of gaining an understanding of a domain: interviews and workshops. Many modellers have an instinctive preference for one or the other method.

A normal interview is a sequence of questions and answers, and is effective at extracting or negotiating specific detail from a single person. Because the interviewee typically represents a single perspective, interviews alone are not effective at building the big picture. Interviews are therefore essentially Left Brain.

Workshops put several stakeholders or experts together in a room to achieve a broad understanding of something. Workshops are much more effective than interviews in creating and scoping the big picture. Well-run workshops can also be useful for clarifying and resolving major differences of fact or opinion. However, workshops are less effective at producing fine detail, and resolving small inconsistencies. Workshops are therefore essentially Right Brain.

A modelling process that relies heavily on interviews will therefore need the modellers to exercise considerable Right Brain thinking, in order to understand the relationships between multiple perspectives, and to achieve the big picture. Conversely, a modelling process that relies heavily on workshops will need the modellers to exercise considerable Left Brain thinking, in order to resolve logical inconsistencies, clarify sequential rules and exceptions, and sort out fine details. Ideally, the modellers should be able to access the balancing mode of thought during a single interview or workshop, as well as between successive interviews and workshops.

What happens when workshops are run by Right Brain thinkers? At best, they can achieve grand visions. At worst, they merely produce sweeping and vague generalities. (One man’s grand vision is another man’s sweeping and vague generality.)

What happens when interviews are conducted by Left Brain thinkers? At best, they can produce thorough and systematic detail, complete and consistent in every respect. At worst, they can generate stacks of irrelevant and unusable trivia, unconnected to anything else.

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Creativity & Order

veryard projects > demanding change > balance > LeftBrain RightBrain > creativity & order

If we associate the Right Brain with Creativity and the Left Brain with Order, then how do we release the creativity of people with dominant LeftBrains?

Many techniques for creativity involve giving the Left Brain something complicated to do, which occupies the Left Brain and releases the Right Brain's capacity for insight, intuition and inspiration.

Interestingly, complicated Left Brain tasks can be found in many practices - from mystical ones like Astrology and Tarot, to respectable ones like Law and the Civil Service. Perhaps these Left Brain tasks merely contain and validate the true purpose and wisdom of these practices, which (at least in the most accomplished and engaged practitioners) comes from the Right Brain
more Notes on Creativity

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This page last updated on August 2nd, 2003
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