On Brains: Is Right for Writers?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSome writer friends pointed out this cool image last week. Do you see a girl spinning counterclockwise or clockwise? Surprisingly, not everyone will see the same thing, even if they’re staring at the screen in the same moment. Seriously. And what you see now may not be what you see fifteen minutes or seven hours from now; it all depends upon which part of your brain is the most active at the time. Right now, for me, the dancer is spinning counter-clockwise–the direction, according to the article she came from, that most people will see her spin. But when I first saw the dancer–after working on my fiction for a chunk of time–she moved clockwise.

This post is going to lean left brain to start because the science major in me has been activated. And something about brain discussions appeals right now–maybe because it’s nearly Halloween and I’m hungry for gummy brains. Muahaha.

According to the article, these are the distinctive roles found between the left and right sides of the brain:

uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies

uses feeling
“big picture” oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can “get it” (i.e. meaning)
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
risk taking

The problem with right brain/left brain musings is that it leaves some with the impression that we are either one or the other, left or right brained, black or white, which–unless someone actually had one of their hemispheres removed–just isn’t the case. That’s because the right and left sides of the brain “talk” to each other via a communication pathway called the corpus callosum. Scientists have been able to learn a lot about the two hemispheres through surgeries in which the corpus callosum is severed (sometimes necessary for people with epilepsy, to reduce the number and severity of seizures).

If the idea of having two brains with individual abilities baffles you (or intrigues), check out this introduction to split-brain research here:

And see someone with a “split brain” in action here. This is pretty wild stuff, when the right hand literally doesn’t know what the left hand (or right brain) is doing:

But just because none of us are wholly right or left brained, doesn’t mean we don’t lean one way or the other or have preferences re: how we learn. Check out this Hemispheric Dominance Inventory HERE and see if you can ID your own leanings.

Being more left or right brained may or may not affect your writing, because the two halves are in constant communication. But there may be ways to help get into “right-brain mode.”

Consider Time of Day. Many writers work late at night or in the wee hours of the morning when daily expectations (the phone calls, shopping, meetings, etc…) have been put on hold or aren’t yet in play. This means the left-brain stressors are low and the right-brain’s meanderings may be better heard. Less inhibited, dream-ready brains are also well-known for spewing out unboxed ideas and outlandish plot twists.

Visualize Before You Write. Starting a new scene? Before you dive in, think about what your characters see, smell and taste. How do they move? How do they feel–physically and emotionally? Do you sense any strong symbolism in the scene? Have these visualizations well in hand before you think about dialogue, and your right and left hemispheres may just play nice with one another.

Shut Out the World. Turn off your email and your phone’s ringer. Parents, keep your cell phones on if you must, but otherwise try to shut down all other forms of communication. Close the curtains. Put on music of choice if that helps. Write.

Turn Word Inside Out. Word users, make your writing screen more creative by changing up your background. Choose Format, then Background, then Fill Effects. Select BLACK as your background instead of white, or select a TEXTURE as a background to your words. Now select View and choose Full Screen. Voila. You are alone with your new, visually stimulating words. (There’s a program for Mac users that has a similar black screen effect, and I’m hoping Quantum’s Eric chimes in to remind me/us what it is. UPDATE: It’s Write Room for Mac, Dark Room for Windows. Thanks, Eric!)

Repress Your Inner Editor. Your editor (AKA The Critic) uses left-brain skills and can snuff out the creative efforts of your right brain by picking everything apart for faults. Shut down The Critic’s judgments of your work until you really need them–after you’ve finished your draft.

Try a Writing Prompt. Plenty of websites offer writing prompts. Writers Digest, for example, updates their list weekly HERE. Or, if you like poetry, try a quick and inspired haiku at Absolute Write’s Water Cooler – my favorite haiku playground.

If left-brain/right-brain stuff appeals to you and you’d like to try a few extra quizzes, check these out:

Right- or Left-Brain Thinker quiz HERE.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAre You Artistic quiz HERE.

Well, the dancer is spinning clockwise again, so you know what that means. End post. Pull up manuscript. Write. Eat a gummy brain.

Write on, all!



About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. theamcginnis says

    every time i blink, the dancer spins in the opposite direction. it was first clockwise then counter clockwise. then back, then back again. what does that mean? is this why i’m confused and indecisive or blocked? Because my brain halves are at war with each other for dominance?

  2. says

    It’s crazy, isn’t it, Thea? I’ve heard that some people never see a full rotation, either. It sounds like both sides of your brain are working well – and working together – to try to make sense of the illusion.

  3. says

    Write Room for Mac, Dark Room for Windows.

    I’ve seen the spinning woman graphic before. I see her spin both ways. Normally she’s clockwise for me, but if I look at a paragraph of text then quick look back it’s counter-clockwise.

    And I’m glad you made the “we use both sides” point, Therese. Especially on the web I see people talking “Are you right brain or left brained?” and it’s a somewhat irrelevant question when every individual uses both.

  4. says

    So far all I see is clockwise. I’ll have to try again later.

    This surprised me because I’ve always thought of myself as on the left-side brain spectrum of writers. I am closer to a plotter than a pantser (do both at times). I also use methods and tools like Writer’s Journey, GMC charts, etc…, which I know some pantsers don’t care for. I think of these tools as ways to get a dialogue going between the left and right brain: asking a logical question and getting a creative answer.

    Fascinating post!

  5. says

    I will have to go back to this post later because I think my brain needs to decide how it’s feeling at the moment. :)

    When the picture of the girl was slowly loading the girl was twirling clockwise and when it loaded completely it started to move counter-clockwise.
    I don’t know what that means but it might be connected to some deepseeded psychological issues :P LOL

  6. says

    I’ve been seeing her go one way then the other in the last 20 or so minutes since I first saw her. Even while looking at her she’ll change direction. All those years of hard partying are finally catching up to me LOL :D

  7. says

    Oh, This is really, really cool!!!

    I could only see the clockwise. Then I read the comments, and tried to see the counter-clockwise. And eventually I could.

    Can you see it when it does a half rotation one way, then half a rotation the other. Half left, half right, half left, half right. Try to do that. It’s really amazing!!

  8. Beth Goulart says

    Oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever! And so very relevant to my own work/life/world right now — thank you for sharing!!!

  9. says

    I had the same reaction, Chris and Beth. As a psych student I saw a lot of optical illusions in various classes, but never did I see anything as fascinating as the spinning dancer. Technology, I guess. ;)

  10. Amy says

    This is really cool! When I first saw her she was going clockwise….after a few minutes of focusing/practicing I was able to see either direction I wanted at that moment. Really neat!

  11. says

    Well I’m inflexible. She is only spinning CLOCKWISE. I cannot get her to spin the other way and in fact, examining the figure, I can’t see how to. Ah well. For being in a creative moment, I don’t feel open.

  12. ggpp says

    It’s not brain side dominance that determines the perception or clockwise or counterclockwise rotation. That’s just some smart fellow “scientist” trying to invent a reason before he actually studies the issue.
    The fact is (as many of you noticed) that you can make yourself see it anyway you like. Experiment a bit and you will notice that the direction is determined by your expectation of the direction in the split second you first look at the image.
    What we expect to see is not negated by what we actually see so the mind decides it must be so… The trick here is that this specific image will not prove us wrong no matter what we expect the rotation to be. So we can see it both ways.
    The fact that we “guess” reality and then we confirm it by analizing the details of what we see is an optimization our brains use to faster make sense of what we perceive.
    Did you notice people tend to fall down elevator shafts when the door opens and the elevator is not there. They just “know” it should be there and act accordingly. By the time the mind understands that this time the guess is incorrect … well it can be too late. Same optimization at work.
    But now let’s say you are a psychologist and you want to make a point about how left side brainiacs are different then right side ones. What kind of explanation would you create for this image to suit your theories ? Hehe .. I can only guess :)

  13. says

    Did you notice people tend to fall down elevator shafts when the door opens and the elevator is not there. They just “know” it should be there and act accordingly.

    The problem with this argument, ggpp, is that there aren’t any expectations when first you glance at the image. It is what it your brain makes of it.

  14. says

    This is the neatest thing I’ve ever seen. It was clockwise for me at first and didn’t change until I read some of the text and then looked back. I can’t make it change at will – but if I relax and breathe deeply while I’m watching it will always go back to clockwise.

    I agree with Therese. I can’t be seeing what I “expect” to see as ggpp indicates. The link was sent to me by a friend with no explanation at all – just “look at this!”