STEAM Online Course

5.4 A tale of two hemispheres

How many of the previous characteristics did you feel applied to both scientists and artists? Hopefully we have illustrated that the sciences and arts are not such polar opposites but in fact, there is a lot of overlap. This means that those who pursue the arts or the sciences have quite a lot in common. In fact, historically there was no such distinction between them and scientists were simply known as ‘natural philosophers’. It was quite common for intellectuals to cross multiple disciplines both in the sciences and arts. They are even combined in one of the Jungian archetypes: the ‘artist-scientist’ who represents a seeker of knowledge, creative and fixated on the ‘wondrous’.

So where does our more modern perception come from? For the most part, it probably comes from the expansion of academia. Not so long ago it was possible for all of our ‘knowledge’ of how the universe worked to be captured in one book. Now that would be impossible (unless you had an extremely large book). As knowledge expanded, academics had to become more ‘specialised’, pursuing only one or two areas of knowledge. Consequently, knowledge began to be segregated and different ‘disciplines’ were established, particularly between the arts and humanities and the sciences. Even within science itself, there emerged different kinds of science; physics, chemistry, biology and so on. A major crossroads now confronted those at the start of tertiary education. Namely, would they pursue a science or an arts and humanities degree?

Perhaps this was the reason a common misconception about our brains began to spread: the notion of right-brain or left-brain personalities. The theory purports that right side of the brain is more responsible for creative and social pursuits (such as art, language and processing emotion) while the left side is more suited to logical and analytical pursuits (such as science and math). Many pseudo-scientists began to suggest that there were two kinds of people, left-brain dominant and right-brain dominated. It may be that this theory seemed to fit nicely with the ‘two cultures’ stereotype, that scientists are purely logical and analytical while arts and humanities students are creative and socially-oriented. The problem is this theory is not backed up by evidence. Not only is there no distinction between the two sides of the brain in terms of these two ‘personalities’ but there is no evidence that scientists are not creative or that artists are not logical. In fact, there is evidence that the most successful STEM professionals (including Nobel Prize winners) are more likely to be also very engaged in the arts. As Einstein put it ‘The greatest scientists are artists as well.’