Steiner Education: Educating Both Sides of the Brain

Emmeline Hawker

Henry (Howlett) and I both have a psychology background. I have a degree in Psychology and Counselling and teach psychology A-level whilst Henry worked in research psychology at Cambridge. Both of us have come to Waldorf education because after studying psychology and then reading the lectures of Rudolf Steiner, we came to the conclusion that Steiner had an inspired vision for an education of the whole human being. Every single aspect of it.

Henry has talked about the thinking, feeling and willing aspects but there are so many more facets and nuances of humanity that Steiner addressed that we could write a thousand articles before we covered them all.

My favourite aspect and the one I continue to study, is the aspect of rhythms which are entrenched in the Waldorf syllabus and which from a neuropsychological perspective have only been really studied in the last half century. Circadian and ultradian rhythms are even on the A-level syllabus and we study the “biological processes that display an endogenous entrainable oscillation”.

However, that’s just a teaser because in this article I’m going to briefly talk about one of my favourite psychologists, Roger Sperry, who studied the differences between the two hemispheres of our brain (the one in our skull) and came to the conclusion that to fulfil our potential as human beings, it was going to become increasingly important that we pay attention to both hemispheres.

Our brain is split into two hemispheres, the right and the left. The only thing linking them is a small piece of cartilage which is called the corpus callosum and which acts as a bridge, allowing the two sides to communicate with each other. In the late 1960s, a procedure called the corpus callostomy was invented to relieve sufferers of a rare and debilitating form of epilepsy. It seemed to cure them, but the side effects were rather extraordinary.

Sperry was interested in these side effects and came up with a series of brilliant experiments to study and communicate separately with the different hemispheres. As each hemisphere is hard wired cross laterally to our hands, eyes and ears (e.g. the left hemisphere is connected to the right hand), now that the bridge was cut, he realised that communicating with the left eye and left hand, would be a pure communication with the right hemisphere of the brain, as long as the right eye and hand were restricted.

He asked each side of the brain questions, showed them pictures, gave them objects and tried to understand their character. It seemed that the left hemisphere was the “one in charge”, the most capable and connected to consciousness. For example, in one experiment, he put a barrier between the participants’ eyes and showed the left eye (connected to the right hemisphere) pictures of geometric shapes. Every now and again, instead of a shape, he’d show a picture of a nude. The participant would immediately start giggling but upon being asked why they were giggling, they would say they had no idea. “What did you see on the screen?”… “Nothing”, they replied.

But the right hemisphere, although consciously participants weren’t aware of it being communicated with, seemed to respond extremely well specifically to geometry, art, folk tales and music (extremely important in the Steiner curriculum).

The conclusion that psychologists came to was that consciousness resided in the left, logical, spoken and written language centred hemisphere and called it the major cortex. This was backed up by research which had been done by Broca and Wernicke in the 19th Century who had identified language residing in the left hemisphere after studying brain damaged patients who had lost language capacities.

The mysterious right hemisphere was called the minor cortex. Subconscious, incapable of language, unimportant.

And yet, the more we study those things which the right hemisphere specialises in, the more we realise that actually they are extremely important. For example, geometrical maths is a growing branch of maths and crucially used by the mathematician who was able to prove Fermat’s last theorem after decades of the theorem remaining unproved.

In fact, after decades of being dedicated specifically to understanding hemispheric lateralisation of function, Roger Sperry himself started to realise that it wasn’t an innate human trait that one cortex was “minor”, subservient to the other. He started to think that perhaps our right hemisphere had simply atrophied due to neglect. He came to the startling conclusion that:

“What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere.”

And having come to this conclusion, he became increasingly concerned we were engaging with the world around us in a left hemisphere dominated society:

“It seems important that the social value factor be more generally recognized as a powerful causal agent in its own right and something to be dealt with directly as such. No more critical task can be projected for the 1970s than that of seeking for civilized society a new, elevated set of value guidelines more suited to man’s expanded numbers and new powers over nature, a frame of reference for value priorities that will act to secure and conserve our world instead of destroying it.”

Having completed an 8 year cycle with my class, I have seen how the Waldorf curriculum specifically embraces both sides of the brain and tries to correct the hemispheric one sidedness, educating both hemispheres with equal importance and hopefully correcting the hemispheric discrimination that Sperry became so concerned about.