The Digital Journalist

Right Brain, Left Brain
and Perceptual Illusions
November 2007

by Beverly Spicer

During the last three weeks of October, an extremely popular item swept through cyberspace via e-mail exchanges. On October 9, the Herald Sun in Australia published a small article with an animated figure of a woman shown spinning in silhouette. The direction in which the viewer sees the figure turning indicates hemispheric dominance in his or her brain. Perceiving the figure spinning clockwise indicates perceptual dominance by the right side of the brain, and counterclockwise indicates left-sided dominance. Some viewers are able to see it only one way no matter how long they stare at the figure. Others find the figure changing back and forth between clockwise and counterclockwise, indicating the alternating natural perceptual proclivities of the hemispheres of the brain. A predominant number of my own correspondents initially perceived her spinning clockwise, but many soon saw her turn in the opposite direction as well. After a little practice, some were able to control the timing of the alternations at will. Test yourself, and see which way your brain works. If you do not see the image animated and spinning, find it in the original article in the Herald Sun.

Why is hemispheric dominance important and what does it have to do with photography? According to what we know about the brain through psychology and neuroscience, the right side of the brain is used for imagination, perception of symbols and images, philosophical thinking, spatial perception and emotion. The left side of the brain is detail-oriented, uses logic, words, language and facts, comprehends order, perceives patterns and is reality-based. Hemispheric dominance accounts for differences in the way we perceive the outer world as well as our inner world of perceptions, and even determines the innate talents we possess. An engineer more likely than not is a left-brain-dominant individual. A poet, on the other hand, may predictably be viewing the world from the right side of the brain.

We photographers are lucky to have high demands for engagement of both sides of our brains. Visual images are the domain of the right side of the brain, but the technical knowledge it takes to operate a camera is left-brain stuff. The way the brain works affects the way the photographer perceives, evaluates, composes, manipulates and captures an image. Beyond the creation of the image in print, the viewer is just as responsible for the way the resulting photograph is seen. In other words, not only is the technical or artistic skill possessed by the photographer responsible for the resulting image, but another whole dimension is added by how the viewer sees it. There are at least three levels of reality working here: the physical object, the unique perception and technical skill of the photographer, and the unique perception by the viewer. For this reason, photography is known as a highly subjective medium.

Right-Brain Photo © Sal Ortega

I found an interesting post on by amateur photographer Albert Smith called "No words: Right-Brain / Left-Brain Photography" that gives examples of right- vs. left-brain photographs. Right-brain-dominant photographers produce images from instinct, he says, and for left brainers, precision is everything. You can see the difference illustrated by the two photos on either side of this paragraph. The photo above of Halloween in San Francisco's Castro District by Sal Ortega is a spontaneous, symbolic, unstudied shot of a fleeting moment with almost palpable emotional content. It is definitely a right-brain image. Below, Albert Smith's photo of a Korean couple walking across a bridge has a cool, silent, studied, and precise quality to it, and suggests a concentrated left-brained evaluation before he calmly released the shutter of his Nikon FE-2 using a 35mm Nikkor lens at just the right moment. Click on both the photos for a discussion of right-brain, left-brain photography.

Left-Brain Photo © Albert Smith

We can begin to understand how two people can perceive the exact same thing in an entirely different way. Put 10 people in a room and show them the same image, and likely there will be as many differing opinions about the image as there are participants. Truly remarkable achievements result when a photographic work is created from and speaks to both sides of the brain because it can fully and powerfully engage the viewer. This may be true in all things and is what it means to capture hearts and minds, given that the "heart" refers to the irrational, more emotional right hemisphere in brain function and the "mind" refers to the more rational, analytical left. This is not to say that great, phenomenal work cannot be created from only one perspective – in fact, some of the greatest of all may be one, to the exclusion of the other. The fact that most of us flip-flop back and forth between the two and that in fact we can control to a degree that shift means that we may all have the potential to expand our perception and engagement and even perceptual balance with the visual world.

This next item is just for fun, and to lead you to think about a related subject near and dear to visual, neuro, and perceptual sciences: optical illusions. The following optical illusion is entirely different from the illusion of the direction of the spinning lady, though it is also animated and requires some concentration on the part of the viewer. The short video that will appear by clicking on the image plays for a little over two minutes. The viewer is instructed to stare at the center of the image until the clip is finished, and then to look away at anything, such as the table beside your computer. The result is named in the title, "Natural Hallucinogen." And, it is. It is also a fun and interesting way to discover yet more mysteries of the brain. Click to see video.

As we move into the fall and progression of the season, let's recognize the changing illusions, directions of spin, and subjective perceptions before our very eyes and try to engage our hearts and minds in all we do. May we recognize half-brained enterprises, tolerate them when necessary or beneficial, and may we use both sides of our brains in the appropriate ways. Remember November for thinking about how we use our brains.

© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

The links that appear in this column are from World Wide Web. Credit is given where the creator is known, or the image is linked to the site where it was found. The Digital Journalist and the author claim no copyright ownership of any video or photographic materials that appear herein.