Journal of American Indian Education

Special Edition
August 1989


Roland D. Chrisjohn and Michael Peters

The packaging of current research on the human brain threatens to tell us more about academic huckstering than about neurological function Howard Gardner. 1978

THOSE OF US INVOLVED in education know that one of the latest fashions concerns the so-called right hemisphere learner. While the public school systems in many regions of North America have had their share of travelling consultants who sing the praises of a right-brain curriculum, the Indian community in particular has had the privilege of being exposed to self-styled experts who think in larger terms yet. Why waste time on the occasional right-brained thinker, why not go the distance and declare an entire ethnic group right-brained? This, of course, is exactly what has happened.

For instance, in a 1982 issue of this journal (Ross, 1982) the argument is made that the North American Indian is right-brained. Ordinarily, one might find articles such as the ones by Ross highly entertaining and even challenging. However, since such articles are also read by people with influence on Indian education, and since such readers might take this sort of "science fiction" seriously, there is a less amusing side to the speculations offered so liberally by writers like Ross. Rossís arguments can be reduced to the claim that North American Indians have dominant "right hemisphere functions. "

We feel that it is time for academics who are actively engaged in research in the relevant areas to come out of their ivory towers and to state their concern about the myth of the right-brained Indian. The first reason for concern is purely historical. Whenever somebody finds "anatomical" proof for the difference between the brains of whites and non-whites, it is time to watch out. In his fascinating book on the Mismeasure of Man, Gould (1981) gives example after example of how such evidence has been twisted and manipulated in order to prove the superiority of not only the white man in general but certain nationalities in particular.

The second reason is educational. The "right-brained" Indian story might very well produce disastrous results for Indian education. The sort of educational strategy that is linked by some to "left-hemisphere learning" has been criticized by proponents of the "right-brain learning" without any clear understanding of what is and what is not important in the learning experiences of a young child. Indeed, Harris (1985, p. 266) summarizes the motivation of some critics of "left-brain thinking" as wanting to promote a philosophy of anti-intellectualism, irrationality and illiteracy.

The concern is therefore not only with the futile claims for "right-brain" thinking but also with the damage that can be done to the school curriculum, however defective, by reducing faith in those approaches that at least teach some skills effectively. If the "right-brain" curriculum were indeed a reasonable alternative to the existing curriculum in Indian schools, one could at least engage in a productive debate as to the relative merits of the two approaches. However, there is no such thing as a "right-brain" curriculum. Instead, one finds a collection of snippets of anecdotes, common sense exercises that are to make learning more exciting for the child, and outright fantastical statements of fancy. Books that give instructions as how to train the right hemisphere are, on occasion, almost comical in their proclamations. For instance, in a book that advertises a right-brained approach to learning, Vitale (1982) states that "a right-brained child likes to work part-way out of his seat and appears to daydream" (p. 18), or that "cleaning their desks and organizing their bedrooms are not talents right-hemispheric children generally display" (p. 61). By that criterion practically all children are right hemispheric!

The important point here is not the cheerful imagination of Vitale, but rather how such books operate in promoting fads to the unwary. Vitale makes some perfectly reasonable observations of the behavior of children (with which most parents and educators can readily identify) and then proceeds to associate these observations, in a totally unfounded way, with the right hemisphere. We wish to point out that we have much sympathy with writers such as Vitale who attempt to liven up the curriculum and who think about different ways to teach skills and concepts to children. We do not have sympathy with the attempt to mix common sense educational strategy with a sort of science fiction of the right and left brain.

Our concern is not so much with the occasional application of these miracle solutions, but with the general effect on curriculum design. Once the educator has been convinced that the Indian is right-brained, it may be decided that some of the skills that are thought to be "left-brain" skills should not be emphasized. Why bother to teach Indian children things that they are not capable of learning anyhow? Such an attitude will have crippling effects on the Indian child. Is it not bad enough that such stereotyped attitudes exist already, without being fluffed up by a bogus neuropsychology, amongst Indians and non-Indians alike? To assert that certain aspects of performance are beyond Indian capacities is courting cultural disaster (Chorover, 1979). We agree that it is much easier to attribute the failures and problems in the education of Indian children to things that have little to do with education and culture, but in the long run the "right-brain" curriculum would just take its place as another quick fix that did not work, and meanwhile serious and essential educational reform is not implemented.

The emphasis on training the right-brained child with a right-brain curriculum, incidentally, is rather peculiar. If there were any substance to this entire issue one might expect the educator to focus on so-called "leftbrain" skills," under the assumption that the right-brain skills are sufficiently developed.

A final comment on the specific attraction of the "right-brain" curriculum for the Indian educator seems appropriate. In general, the available school systems have not served Indians well. As Indians are in the process of gaining more and more local control of the system, there is an understandable reaction against an old system that seemed imposed on the community from outside, and that did not seem to work. A "right-brain" curriculum appears to offer the chance to have something that is not only new but also something that might be specifically suitable for the Indian. We hope that we will make the point that the hopes for a "right-brain" curriculum are ill founded.

We have outlined some general reasons for our uneasiness about the "right-brain" curriculum for Indians. Such concerns would be of little significance, however, if the scientific evidence were indeed in support of the "right brain dominance" of the Indian, we would have to re-examine our position.

Below, we will discuss the sort of evidence that has been used to argue in favor of the "right-brained" Indian, and we will illustrate why we feel that the evidence does not in any way support the conclusion that Indians differ in brain organization from non-Indians. We have been careful to include as many references as practical, with the hope that the reader, if he or she disagrees with us, has the opportunity to go to the original sources. Much of the debate about the "right-brained" Indian has relied on second hand interpretations of popular articles, and very little attention has been paid to the work of researchers who are actually doing research in the area. The reader will be able to gain some insight about the problems in methods and about the "state of the art" in general.

There are two different sources of evidence that have been used to support the right-brained Indian myth and these will be considered in turn.


When people are fitted with earphones and when two different vowel consonant syllables (let us say "ba" and "ka") are fed into the two ears at the same time, the average person will be somewhat better in identifying the syllable that was received by the right ear. It is commonly thought that the input from the ears crosses so that the left brain has better access to the right ear and the right brain half has better access to the left ear. A right-ear superiority seems to suggest that the left brain half is dominant for some aspects of language function.

Hynd and Scott (1980) and Scott, Hynd and Weed (1979) published the remarkable finding that in Navajo children a pattern was observed that was, exactly opposite to that seen in whites: the left ear showed superior performance. Surely that was convincing evidence of right-brainedness in Indians! As it turns out, there are problems.

Mckeever and Hunt (1984) conducted a very large and careful study with Navajo children, with many more subjects, and found that Navajo children showed a pattern that was identical to that of Whites: superior right ear performance. In addition, work by Vocate (1984) with Crow children shows that some of the contradictory results may derive from the fact that many of the Indians are bilingual while most often the white control children are unilingual. In conclusion, evidence from this area is less than impressive.

Another line of evidence comes from the extensive work of McShane and his coworkers (McShane, 1983; McShane and Willensbring, 1984; McShane, Risse and Rubens, 1984). McShane is concerned with brain asymmetries. Normally, in the average white right-hander, the asymmetry is such that the posterior parts of the brain are larger on the right while the anterior parts tend to be larger on the left. McShane, Risse and Rubens (1984) found such an asymmetry in whites, but in Indians the two brain halves were more similar to each other.

Evidence of this kind would be compelling if it were not for one methodological oversight. In work like this, it is imperative that the measurements are taken "blind." That is, the person performing the measurements must be totally unaware of whether the brain that is being measured at the time is that of an Indian or that of a white. In the absence of blind procedure no credence can be given to data of this kind (see Gould, 1981, chapter 2).

Performance on Intelligence Tests

The second major source of evidence comes from performance patterns on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. This scale has a Verbal and a Performance part and some investigators feel that the Verbal part reflects left hemisphere function while the Performance part reflects right hemisphere function. As a result, if the Performance part is done relatively better than the Verbal part, some people feel encouraged to talk about right hemisphere dominance. This, for instance, is the conclusion that Browne (1984) came to because in her sample Indian children showed relatively better scores on the Performance part and McShane (1980) and Flor-Henry and Sussman (1981) showed similar patterns.

However, a considerable number of explanations can be found for the relative superiority of the Performance part, explanations that do not involve speculations about right and left brain function. The most likely of these are concerned with passive and active test biases in the Wechsler, and the effect of these biases on the two parts of the test.

In this context it is interesting to note the study by Taylor, Ziegler and Pertenio (1984). The study shows verbal-performance discrepancies among non-Indians who live in subcultures different from the surrounding American middle-class culture. Are all populations who do not show the patterns of the American middle-class right-brained? We should note that the tests that are summarized under the Performance category in the Wechsler Scale are less easily influenced by cultural biases than the tests categorized under the Verbal category. For this reason any cultural biases come more heavily to bear on the Verbal than the Performance part of the Wechler scale. Indeed, when psychologists have attempted to construct intelligence tests that are as little biased towards one culture as possible, the tests resemble very much the Performance part of the Wechsler test (cf. the Leiter International Performance Scale). In conclusion, there is no compelling evidence for "right-brainedness" in Indians in the scores obtained on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale.


Our objective was to show that the evidence on which the "right-brained Indian" myth is based is very weak indeed; too weak to justify any emphasis on "right-brain" curricula in Indian education at this point. The interested reader will find further discussion of bias in intelligence testing in Chrisjohn and Lanigan (in press), Shepard (1982), Mishra (1982), and McShane and Plas (1984). Critical and informative discussion of the "right-brain" story can be found in Kinsbourne (1982) and Gardner (1978). We especially recommend Hemispheric Function and Collaboration in the Child, a book in an educational psychology series that bears on this discussion (Best, 1985).

In the collection of articles in that book, it is Harrisís article that deserves particular attention. Our focus in the preceding discussion has been on the North American Indian, but it is clear that what can be said about the myth of the right-brained Indian can be said in general about the myth of "teaching the right brain. " Harris traces the history of the issue and his conclusions are summarized most appropriately in the title of his paper "Teaching the right brain: Historical perspective on a contemporary educational fad. " Indeed, if the claims for benefits of teaching the right brain are examined carefully (Harris, 1985, p. 236-239), one is reminded of the pitch made by the dazzling salesman of patent medicines that cure one and all diseases.

It is well to be reminded that the push for a "right-brained" educational curriculum is not necessarily based on an unselfish and pure desire to bring a better future to the schools. Those of us who have observed the area over the last few years could not fail to notice that a veritable right-brain industry has developed. Instant experts travel the country, giving expensive workshops about how to improve oneís skills by using the right brain. The list of the marvelous things that can be gained is endless, from becoming a better artist (Edwards, 1979), writer (Rico, 1983) and mathematician (Wheatley, 1977) to beating the stock market (Goodspeed, 1983).

One can hardly expect these instant experts to look critically at the available research since there would be no interest in undercutting a good thing by a skeptical attitude.


Browne, D. B. (1984). WISC-R scoring patterns among Native Americans of the Northern Plains. White Cloud Journal, 3, 3-16.

Chorover, S. L. (1979). From genes to genocide. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Chrisjohn, R. D., and Lanigan, C. B. (in press). Research on Indian intelligence: Review and prospects. In H. McCue (Ed.), Proceedings of the First Mokakit Conference.

Edwards, B. (1979). Drawing on the right side of the brain. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

Flor-Henry, P., and Sussman, P. S. (1981). Psychopathical and psychometric characteristics of North American Indians as compared to Caucasian psychiatric hospitalizations. Alberta Hospital Edmonton, Psychiatric Treatment Centre, Research Bulletin No. 48.

Gardner, H. (1978). What we know (and donít know) about the two halves of the brain. Harvard Magazine, March-April, 24-27.

Goodspeed, B. W. (1983). The Tao-Jones averages: A guide to whole-brained investing. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Harris, L. (1985). Teaching the right brain: Historical perspective on a contemporary fad. In C. T. Best (Ed.) Hemispheric function and collaboration in the child. New York: Academic Press.

Hynd, G. W. and Scott S. A. (1980) Propositional and appositional modes of thought and differential cerebral speech in Navajo Indian and Anglo children. Child Development, 51, 909-911.

Kinsbourne, M. (1982). Hemispheric specialization and growth of human understanding. American Psychologist, 37, 411-420.

McKeever, W. F., and Hunt, L. J. (1984). Failure to replicate the Scott et al. finding of reversed ear dominance in the Native American Navajo. Neuropsychologia, 22, 539.

McShane, D. (1983). Neurocranial form: Differentiating four ethnic populations using simple CT scan measure. International Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 137-144.

McShane, D. (1980). A review of the scores of American Indian children on the Wechsler Intelligence Scales. White Cloud Journal, 1, 3-10.

McShane D. A. and Plas, J. M. (1982). Otitis media, psychoeducational difficulties, and Native Americans: A review and a suggestion. Journal of Preventive Psychiatry, 277-292

McShane, D., and Willenburg, M. L. (1984). Differences in cerebral asymmetries related to drinking history and ethnicity. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 172, 529-532.

McShane, D., Risse, G. L., and Rubens, A. B. (1984). Cerebral asymmetries on CT scan in three ethnic groups. International Journal of Neuroscience, 23, 69-74.

Mishra S. P. (1982). The WISC-R and evidence of item bias for Native American Navajos. Psychology in the Schools, 19, 458-464.

Rico, G. L. (1983). Writing the natural way: Using right-brain techniques to release you expressive power. Los Angeles: Tarcher.

Ross, A C. (May 1982) Brain hemispheric functioning and the Native American. Journal American Indian Education, 2-5.

Scott, S., Hynd, G. W., and Weed, W. (1979). Cerebral speech lateralization in the Native North American Navajo. Neuropsychologia, 17, 89-92.

Shepard, L. A. (1982). Definitions of bias. In R. A. Berk (Ed.), Handbook of methods for detecting test bias. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Taylor, R. L. Ziegler, E. W., and Pertenio, 1., (1984). An investigation of WISC-R verbal performance differences as a function of ethnic status. Psychology in the Schools, 21 437-441.

Vitale, B. M. (1982). Unicorns are real. Rolling Hills Estates, Cal.: Jalmar Press.

Vocate, D. R. (1984). Differential cerebral speech lateralization in Crow Indian and Anglo children. Neuropsychologia, 22, 487-494.

Wheatley, G. H. (1977). The brain hemispheresí roles in problem solving. Arithmetic Teacher, 25, 36-39.

DR. ROLAND CHRISJOHN is an Oneida Indian from a settlement near London, Ontario, Canada. He received his bachelorís degree from Central Michigan University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Western Ontario, London. He is presently assistant professor in the psychology department of the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and part-time psychologist for the Native Crisis Team, an Indian psychological clinic in Toronto. He is a member of the Board of MOKAKIT Indian Research Association, and has interests in intelligence, education, clinical psychology and multivariate statistics.

DR. MICHAEL PETERS received his bachelorís and masterís degrees in psychology from the University of Alberta, Calgary, and the Ph.D. degree from the University of Western Ontario. His research interests are in the area of neuropsychology and he has published widely in the area of lateralization of motor control. In addition, he has an active interest in Indian education and is collaborating with Dr. Chrisjohn in this area. Dr. Peters is currently associate professor in the psychology department, University of Guelph.

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