“Can you see in the still-life here on the table that the orange is in front of the vase?” “Yes,” replied the student, “I see that.” “Well,” I said, “in your drawing, you have the orange and the vase occupying the same space.” The student answered, “Yes, I know. I didn’t know how to draw that.” “Well,” I would say carefully, you look at the still-life and you draw it as you see it.” “I was looking at it,” the student replied. “I just didn’t know how to draw that.” “Well,” I would say, voice rising, “you just look at it . . . ” The response would come, “I am looking at it”. . . – Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Introduction: Student Difficulty with Drawing
Every art teacher can likely identify with the kind of frustration Betty Edwards experienced when she taught at Venice High School in Southern California in the 1960s. Many of her art students had a very difficult time reproducing familiar, everyday objects. On the other hand, she found that when they were unfamiliar with what they were drawing (as when they were copying an upside-down line drawing), their reproductions improved considerably. Edwards was puzzled by this discrepancy until the neurophysiologist Roger Sperry began publishing his findings on functional differences between the left and right hemispheres of the human brain in 1968. Galvanized by these new studies, Edwards reconsidered the way she taught drawing, eventually writing a book of intriguing exercises ranging from upside-down drawing to using a plastic sheet to accurately trace 3-D objects onto a 2-D surface. In 1979, the revolutionary book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was first published.
Drawing and Brain Hemisphere Laterality
Two primary themes are evident in Edwards’ book. First, she does not teach the students how to draw but, rather, how to see. This is necessary because, as Edwards realized, the difference between a realistic drawing and a childlike one is not one of motor coordination, but of how the artist processes visual information. One must attain only five basic perceptual skills to produce a realistic drawing of any object. So why do these skills not come naturally to most people? The answer, Edwards claims, leads to the second theme of the book: the importance of brain hemisphere laterality, or the difference in the abilities of the left and right hemispheres.
To explain her theory on why so many people have a difficult time drawing, Edwards cites the popular belief, inspired by Sperry’s early work, that “the human brain uses two fundamentally different modes of thinking, one verbal, analytic, and sequential and one visual, perceptual, and simultaneous. . .” According to this theory, the left hemisphere of the brain is essentially verbal and analytic and the right is visual and perceptual (“L-mode” and “R-mode,” to Edwards). The key to drawing well, Edwards explains, is the ability to access the R-mode at a conscious level, to liberate it from the dominant L-mode. In R-mode, you are freed from the symbolic representations of objects developed during childhood (such as seeing an eye as an almond shape with a circle in the middle) that is a hallmark of L-mode. So Edwards trains her readers and art students to make the cognitive shift from the dominant, symbolic L-mode to the unfamiliar R-mode.
By all accounts, Edwards’ technique works wonders for people who abandoned drawing in childhood, convinced they simply had no artistic talent. The thrill, after living for years with rudimentary drawing skills, of producing a sophisticated self-portrait is indescribable. But is the success her readers attain really explained by brain hemisphere laterality? Does current brain research support her theory?
Scientific Roots of Edwards’ Theory
Edwards cites several scientific sources as evidence for brain hemisphere laterality. She describes, for instance, the 19th century discovery that speech centers were located primarily in the left hemisphere. Since language plays such a central role in our lives, the left hemisphere became known as the dominant one; the right was thought to be subordinate. Not until the work of Roger Sperry did scientists begin to realize that the right hemisphere has its own unique capabilities. Much of the revolutionary work in neurology during this time involved “split-brain” operations. To treat intractable epilepsy, surgeons would sever a patient’s corpus callosum, the thick band of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres. Sperry, his student Jerre Levy, and many other researchers devised clever experiments to limit sensory data to a single hemisphere of these patients. With the corpus callosum severed, the scientists were able to test the abilities of each hemisphere separately.
In experiments with split-brain patients, scientists documented clear evidence for the expected speech laterality. Patients could name an object if it was shown only to the left hemisphere but could not name it if it was shown only to the right hemisphere. And even though the patients claimed not to have seen anything when the image was shown to the right hemisphere, they could point to the correct object with their left hands (controlled by the right hemisphere). Many such experiments seemed to show that although the right hemisphere did not have speech, it could process visual information correctly.
Furthermore, the right hemisphere proved to be superior to the left at some tasks, especially those requiring visuospatial processing, which involves the ability to mentally manipulate an object in space. When a split-brain patient was given wooden blocks and asked to arrange them to match a given pattern, he could only perform the task with his right-hemisphere-controlled left hand. It is the unique visuospatial abilities as well as the holistic, non-temporal, and non-rational processing style of the right hemisphere, Edwards believes, that lead to realistic drawing when students tap into R-mode.
Further research seems to support Edwards’ theory. In the 1990 Lateral Asymmetries and Hemispheric Specialization, Dr. Anke Bouma describes other experiments by Levy and colleagues on split-brain patients and then sums up the results: “The RH [right hemisphere] appears to be superior in tasks involving the direct apprehension of shapes without recourse to verbal labeling. The LH [left hemisphere] becomes dominant when some form of verbal and/or conceptual, symbolic transformation is required.” This makes perfect sense in light of Edwards’ observations that when students copy an upside-down line drawing, their performance is better because their symbol-system doesn’t interfere. Levy concluded, as does Edwards, that each hemisphere processes the same data with a different strategy.
On the other hand, many of Edwards’ own exercises develop skills that seem to require more left-brain than right-brain dominance, at least according to the results from the this group of studies. Bouma explains: “. . . the LH (right hand) analyzed the shapes in terms of the relationships of their details and RH (left hand) . . . visualized the solid forms as a whole.” Yet most of Edwards’ drawing exercises depend entirely on narrowing attention to individual lines and angles and analyzing their relationships to each other–not on visualizing forms as a “whole.” Even she admits that the skill of proportion perception “requires that one deal with ratios and comparisons that seem quite ‘left-brained.’”
Tellingly, none of the scientific examples Edwards uses to back up her theory are more recent than 1985, even in the third edition of the book, published in 1999. Fourteen years is a very long time in science research. In fact, the one recent quote that she does have (John Bruer in 1999) seems to refute her theory: “What modern brain science is telling us . . . is that it makes no scientific sense to map gross, unanalyzed behaviors and skills — reading, arithmetic, spatial reasoning — onto one brain hemisphere or another.” No neuroscientist today would deny that human brain hemispheres show laterality in many tasks. Nevertheless, as Kandel, Schwartz and Jessel argue in their 1995 textbook Essentials of Neural Science and Behavior, one can only extrapolate so much from this finding:
It is sometimes said that our brain consists of a left hemisphere that excels in intellectual, rational, verbal, and analytical thinking and a right hemisphere that excels in sensory discrimination and in emotional, nonverbal, and intuitive thinking. However, in the normal brain, with extensive commissural interconnections, the interaction of the two hemispheres is such that we cannot dissociate clearly their specialized functions.
But Edwards’ book truly works — in only a few days, a diligent reader can move from childlike drawings to realistic self-portraits. Given its success, why nitpick at the theory or the science behind it? Edwards admits that she has received criticism from neuroscientists. Her defense is threefold: first, the technique is successful. Second, she believes that students would be suspicious of the exercises without the scientific rationale. Third, she concedes that while any rationale might be enough to convince students to try the exercises, her theory appeals to them because it feels right. But does Edwards really need to use highly questionable neuroscience to make her case? Certainly, students who take her classes or buy her book are not going to reject effective exercises. And her own justifications for sticking with the theory are far from scientific: “. . . my explanation seems to make sense to people at a subjective level. The theory seems to fit their experience.”
Since the most current research data do not support Edwards’ R-mode versus L-mode theory, her explanation of how the drawing exercises work is more likely just a useful analogy rather than an actual description of brain activity. It would be wiser not to make unsupportable claims about neuroscience, but to emphasize only that the student must learn to see ordinary objects in a different way. This rationale alone is sufficient and would not detract from the success of the technique as a whole.
Bouma, Anke. Lateral Asymmetries and Hemispheric Specialization: Theoretical Models and Research. Swets and Zeitlinger B.V., 1990.
Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Tarcher/Putnam,1999.
Kandel, Schwartz, and Jessel. Essentials of Neural Science and Behavior. Appleton & Lange, 1995.