Two Ways of Knowing

"You have two brains: a left and a right.  Modern brain scientists now know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain; it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters and words…  Your right brain is your nonverbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures, composed of ‘whole things,’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words."

From The Fabric of Mind, by the eminent scientist and neurosurgeon, Richard Bergland.  Viking Penguin, Inc., New York 1985. 


When Betty Edwards’s book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, was first published in 1979, it received an immediate positive response and, to everyone’s surprise, remained on the New York Times’s Best Sellers List for nearly a year.  Over the years since then, Dr. Edwards has revised the book three times to include advances and clarifications in the teaching techniques and the underlying theory.  The book is now widely accepted by artists, teachers, and others around the world. 

The teaching methods Dr. Edwards presents in the book are largely based on the Nobel Prize-winning work of Dr. Roger W. Sperry, (1913-1994), the eminent neuropsychologist and neurobiologist at CalTech (the California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena.  His work focused on the lateralization of verbal, analytic, sequential functions, which, for most individuals, are mainly located in the left hemisphere; and the visual, spatial, perceptual functions, mainly located in most individuals’ right hemispheres.  In Sperry’s words, each hemisphere is:

“. . . indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and . . . both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel.”  Roger W. Sperry, 1974

Most activities require both modes (which Dr. Edwards fortuitously termed in the 1979 book “L-mode” and “R-mode,” no matter where located in the individual brain).  Each mode contributes its special functions to most tasks (this is the brain “working as a whole”), but a few activities require mainly one mode, without significant interference from the other.  Drawing is one of these activities.  Other examples from ordinary life requiring largely separate systems are:    

For L-mode, the left hemisphere verbal, analytic, sequential system: Balancing your checkbook.  We do not want creative, intuitive checkbook balancing.  We want step-by-step verbal, numerical, sequential analysis.

For R-mode, the right hemisphere visual, spatial, perceptual system: Facial recognition.  We do not analyze a face, naming each feature in sequence, in order to recognize the face of a friend.  Recognition is instant, visual, and global (all-at-once).


To apply Sperry’s research to the problem of learning to draw, Dr. Edwards needed to find ways to bypass the verbal L-mode system, which, in our culture tends to dominate—ways that would allow the sub-dominant R-mode non-verbal system to come forward to perform a task for which it is especially suited: drawing a perceived subject.    

Dr. Edwards devised a general rule to solve this problem, a rule that forms the basis of all of the exercises in her book and in our workshops:

“In order to gain access to sub-dominant, somewhat hard-to-access R-mode, the non-verbal, visual perceptual system of the brain, it is necessary to present one’s own brain with a task that the dominant verbal system, L-mode, will turn down.”

A prime example of applying this rule is “Upside-Down Drawing.”  When presented with an upside-down image as a subject to be drawn, the left-hemisphere’s verbal system says, in effect, “I don’t do upside down.  It’s too hard to name the parts, and things are hardly ever upside-down in the world.  It’s not useful, and if you are going to do that, I’m out of here.”  The dominant verbal system “bows out,” and the sub-dominant visual mode is “allowed” to take on the task for which it is well suited.


Drawing a perceived object (so-called “realistic” drawing), Edwards proposes, is a visual perceptual skill made up of five component skills.  These are the basic skills that you will learn in our workshops.  They are:

1)     Seeing and drawing edges (sometimes called “contour drawing”)

2)     Seeing and drawing spaces (called “negative spaces”)

3)     Seeing and drawing relationships (called “perspective and proportion”)

4)     Seeing and drawing lights and shadows (called “shading”)

5)     Seeing and drawing the whole (called the gestalt, the “thing itself,” the essential nature of the observed subject, which emerges spontaneously from the first four component skills).

Instruction in these component skills fits the overarching rule stated above by presenting a student’s brain with tasks that L-mode will turn down, as fancifully described below.

  • Perception of edges: For L-mode, “Too complex, too slow, not needed for quick naming.”
  • Perception of spaces: “I do not deal with nothing.  It’s not useful; spaces can’t be named.”
  • Perception of relationships: “Too paradoxical.  Don’t tell me that ceiling slants.  I know it is horizontal.  Don’t tell me that person in the distance is half the size of the one close by.  This stuff doesn’t fit what I know.”
  • Perception of lights and shadows: “Too complicated!  And they keep changing!  Not useful.”
  • Perception of the gestalt:  “Too many parts.  I can’t pay attention and name them all—I’ll just name the whole thing.”


The component skills of drawing are the“A, B, C’s” of the global skill, perhaps comparable to the “A, B, C’s” of reading.  (Coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, basic component reading skills also number about five, but are not consistently listed as the same five.  There seems to be a somewhat wide disagreement among reading experts about what are the basic components of the global skill of reading.)

Beyond the basic component skills of drawing are many “advanced” skills, such as drawing from memory, drawing “from the imagination,” using a variety of mediums, tackling infinite subject matter, abstracting, and inventing — on and on, as far as one might want to go in drawing.  But to make a start, it’s a good idea to begin with the basics and go on from there with confidence, just as it is a good idea to have a solid grounding in basic reading skills before tackling the study of history or English literature, or writing prose or poetry.


Learning to draw, then, turns out to be something more than “learning to draw.”  Paradoxically, learning to draw means learning how to make a mental shift from L-mode to R-mode.  That is what a person trained in drawing does, and this ability to shift thinking modes at will has important implications for thinking in general and for creative problem solving in particular.