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Brain Diagrams Almost Always Face the Same Direction


Does this brain look weird to you? If so, it could be because of the direction it's facing; this left-facing brain is going against the grain, because almost every other drawing of a brain faces its right.

The direction a brain faces does not really matter, so why would most of them face right? Our very own chief scientific officer, Adrian Owen, and psychologist Richard Wiseman, have looked deeper into the issue in a new paper published in i-Perception.

The right-facing bias was confirmed; 80% of diagrams depicting a brain were facing to their right. It didn't matter if the brain was depicted inside its owner's head, or creepily floating in space (as brains tend to do in drawings—less so in real life), it was more likely than not to be shown with its frontal lobe poking right. Note that we're talking about direction from the brain's perspective, not the viewer's.

Past research has found that full portraits of people, with their brains safely hidden inside their heads, also tend to shown looking right, so we are all accustomed to looking at right-facing people. Why would that be? Facing right shows the left side of the face to the viewer, and the left side of the face is seen as better able to express emotion, and rated as more attractive. Right-facing portraits just look better, so there are more of them. That preference for faces could be carrying over to face-free brains. Another reason for the asymmetry could be because Western cultures read written materials from left to right, though it remains to be seen if cultures with right-to-left writing reverse their bias in brain diagrams.

It goes to show that your brain has expectations you may not even be aware of—even for trivial things like how the brain itself is depicted.

Updated May 30. An earlier version of this article had the brain image facing the viewer's left (which is common), not the brain's own left (which is uncommon). The diagram in i-Perception is being corrected as well. Confusion over the correct diagrams just goes to show how arbitrary the direction is, and thus how surprising it is that there is a strong bias!