“What is whole brain thinking?” you asked.

I wasn’t quite sure. So, I started researching this topic and found some interesting and useful takeaways.

When you use whole brain thinking (integrating your left and right brain hemispheres) you will strengthen your ability to create new ways to solve problems and the process can make you a good problem solver. It can also improve your performance at work and in sports.

Whole Brain Thinking

Author Tony Buzan’s underlying idea of whole brain thinking is the combination of left and right hemisphere styles of processing. This idea relates to the concept of plasticity in the brain and that we can change our cognitive problem-solving styles. There is substantial research to support this claim.

The Left Hemisphere

There are many studies in scientific literature showing that the left hemisphere has a dominant role in language in the vast majority of right-handed people.

Both Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke, in the mid-1800s, observed that damage to the left hemisphere resulted in aphasia [inability to comprehend language]. In fact, this distinction between the left hemisphere (verbal) and the right hemisphere (nonverbal) has, in the past, shown to be the most robust observation concerning differences between the hemispheres.

In addition to the research on brain-damaged patients, it appears that split-brain patients are, at least initially, unable to speak from the right hemisphere. However, there is currently a great debate centering on the surgically separated right hemisphere.

You will recall that Roger Sperry initially studied split-brain patients at the California Institute of Technology. One of his first findings was the verbal and nonverbal distinction.

Two of Sperry’s former students, Michael Gazzaniga and Eran Zaidel, also studied split-brain patients and much of their research deals with the language abilities of the right hemisphere.

The Right Hemisphere

Briefly, both men have observed that a number of their patients have, following the operation, developed the ability to speak from the right hemisphere. The nature of the debate centers on the question of whether right hemisphere language is a universally occurring phenomenon or whether it is an oddity observed in only a minority or split-brain subjects. This debate is extremely interesting and you can read the findings in Zaidel and Gazzaniga.

The above findings suggest that the brain does appear to have more flexibility and plasticity than previously thought. Findings such as these suggest that the more you research the abilities of the two hemispheres, the more overlap there appears to be. Therefore, if you call yourselves left-brain or right-brain people, you are limiting your ability to develop new strategies.

Improving performance with the non-dominant hand

One particularly fascinating finding demonstrating neuroplasticity concerns Buzan’s work with Olympic athletes. He has observed that when you force athletes to train with their non-preferred or non-dominant hand, there is a greater increase in overall performance.

It appears that while both hands develop increased proficiency, the non-dominant hand has a greater increase relative to the dominant hand. The ultimate result is an increase in overall balance and performance.

This resulting state of increased balance is analogous to whole brain thinking.

Doing a spatial task

A great deal of scientific literature has shown that the right hemisphere appears to have an advantage in performing spatial tasks. For example, Gazzaniga and LeDoux have observed that a right-handed split-brain patient was better at drawing a cube with the right hand (controlled by the left hemisphere) than the left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) when tested before the operation.

However, when tested after the operation, the patient was more proficient with the left hand (right hemisphere) than the right hand (left hemisphere) drawing the cube. Results such as these suggest that the right hemisphere has an advantage concerning spatial tasks.

Breaking a task into its components

Here, Buzan suggests that, when you are drawing a face, for example, you actually break it down into its elements and analyze each element in order to gain the correct perspective. For instance, he points out that the eyes are one-eye width apart and one eye width from the side of the face.

This process of breaking a task down into components and analyzing it in a serial or step-by-step manner appears to be a left-hemisphere processing style. A great deal of research has supported this claim.

Recall that Bever and Chiarello had found that musicians analyzed a piece of music using predominantly a left-hemisphere step-by-step style, while non-musicians analyzed a piece of music using predominantly a right-hemisphere holistic or global style.

It appears that, by using this analytical style in order to draw a face, Buzan is involving processing from both hemispheres, resulting in a more whole brain-balanced participation.

Drawing involves whole brain thinking

Whole brain thinking problem solver
Whole Brain Thinking

Betty Edwards, in her book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, also stresses the importance of drawing faces as an exercise to involve the whole brain. She suggests that you need to learn how to see rather than learn how to draw.

Edwards presents a number of exercises that attempt to engage the right hemisphere rather than the left hemisphere. One such exercise is drawing upside-down images. She suggests that copying an upside-down image will disengage the left hemisphere from knowing or interpreting the image.

Her claims regarding hemispheric involvement in upside-down images are intriguing and thought-provoking. Her book is an excellent resource, providing many exercises that may be helpful to you in terms of developing your ability to see.

Drawing with the “wrong” hand

Another interesting exercise for you would be to draw with your “wrong” hand.

In most right-handed people, the right hand is controlled primarily by the left hemisphere, while the left hand is controlled primarily by the right hemisphere (Springer & Deutsch, 1985). A way, then, to ensure right hemisphere involvement, would be to attempt with the left hand.

The advantages of this exercise have been shown by Buzan’s work with the athletes to result in better balance and greater overall performance.

Integrating the left and right hemispheres

It is interesting to discover that I have been using whole brain thinking without realizing it. During my school days, I played table tennis and swam at state championships. In both sports, I trained my left hand a bit more than my dominant right hand. I believed my overall performance playing table tennis and swimming improved.

For those of you who are in business and management, It is critical that you have the ability to see new directions and perspectives. Unfortunately, when you are in business meetings, you tend to attack the same old problems with the same old solutions leading to the same old unsatisfactory results.

Remember Einstein’s famous quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

This problem with doing the same thing over and over again can also be due to functional fixedness, which is a cognitive bias that limits a person to use an object or activity only in the way it is traditionally used

It is during times such as these that whole brain thinking is tremendously important. It is the integration of right hemispheric holistic thinking that takes a new perspective, with left hemispheric analytical thinking that makes the new approach workable.

Exercise such as Buzan’s which requires the abilities of both hemispheres will strengthen your ability to create new ways to solve problems. And when you can integrate both hemispheres effectively (i.e. use whole brain thinking), you will be a better problem solver.


  • Bever, T., Chiarello, R. “Cerebral Dominance in Musicians and Non-Musicians.” Science, 1974, pp 137-139.
  • Buzan, T. “You as Artists.” Adapted with permission.
  • Edwards, B. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. JP Tarcher Inc, 1979.
  • Gazzaniga, M. “Right Hemisphere Language Following Brain Bisection: A 20-year Perspective.” American Psychologist, 1983, 38(5), pp 525-537.
  • Gazzaniga, M., Ledoux, G. The Integrated Mind. Plenum Press NY, 1985.
  • Springer, S., Deutch, G. Left Brain, Right Brain. WH Freeman & Company NY, 1985.
  • Zaidel, E. “A Response to Gazzaniga: Language in the Right Hemisphere: Convergent Perspectives.” American Psychologist, 1983, 38(5), pp 542-546.