Right Versus Left Brain: What Does the Spinning Dancer Teach Us?

Last week I linked to an intriguing visual of a spinning dancer. It is intriguing because some people see her spinning clockwise, whereas others see her spinning counter-clockwise. Moreover, some people are able to make the direction of her spin switch. The article asserts that the direction she spins is an indicator of whether your thinking is dominated by the right side of your brain (clockwise) or the left side of your brain (counter-clockwise).

According to funderstanding.com, left-brain people are supposed to be logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective, and look at parts. These folks should see her spinning counter-clockwise. Right-brain people, meanwhile, are supposed to be random, intuitive, holistic, synthesizing, subjective, and look at wholes. She should spin clockwise in this case.

For me, the spinning is decidedly clockwise, which presumably makes me right-brained. I guess my college roommates, who nicknamed me “The Rational Man,” would be surprised and disappointed by the spinning dancer’s verdict. My wife Jeannette, watching the dancer next to me, saw her spin counter-clockwise. (As a result, her new nickname is “The Rational Woman,” though I don’t think it will stick.)

My initial sample of two people (my wife and myself) did not seem to fit with these predictions. So, in the interest of collecting more data, I asked blog readers to list their college majors along with the dancer’s spinning direction. We then tallied the data for the first 219 respondents who provided usable data. We divided people into the following broad categories based on their college majors: economics, hard sciences, engineering/math/computer science, non-economics social scientists, and the humanities.

The theory, I think, would predict that economists, engineers, and scientists would likely be dominated by left-brain thinkers who see her spinning counter-clockwise, whereas humanists and non-economics social scientists would have more right-brain thinkers. Here’s how the numbers actually break down as to who initially sees her spinning counter-clockwise among Freakonomics blog readers. The higher this number, the more rational you are supposed to be (with the number of observations in parentheses):

Engineers/mathematicians/computer programmers: 21.8% (N=55)
Economists: 26.7% (N=60)
Scientists: 31.0% (N=29)
Social Scientists: 36.2% (N=47)
Humanities: 42.9% (N=28)

Admittedly, these are not large sample sizes, but the results could hardly be more off from the theory’s apparent predictions. Ironically, it appears that the theory does have some power to order people as to how logical they might be — you just have to reverse your interpretation of which direction of spin corresponds to right-brained thinking. Perhaps the author of the article just got confused?

The initial article also misses on its other prediction — namely, that the dancer will spin counter-clockwise for most people. In fact, in our data only 30 percent of the people saw her spinning counter-clockwise when they first looked. Again, this is consistent with the original author mixing up clockwise and counter-clockwise.

As it turns out, I should have asked our commenters to list their genders as well. In most cases, we could make an informed guess of gender based on names. Women turned out to be 36 percent counter-clockwise, versus 30 percent for men (and 23 percent for people whose gender we couldn’t tell from their comment). From a cursory search of the Internet, it seems like this result also contradicts what we would expect.

I often joke about how the information provided by someone who is incredibly terrible at predicting the future (i.e., they always get things wrong) is just as valuable as what you get from someone who is good at predicting the future. I used this strategy with some success by betting the opposite of my father whenever he’d bet a large sum of money on a football team that was sure to cover the spread.

It looks like the spinning dancer is just terrible enough as a predictor to be of value.


Mike

I think my brain perceived the light source to be behind the dancer, producing the dark silhouette. This combined with the shadow of the dancer on 180 degrees of rotation gives me a clockwise spin. I can't get her to go the other direction with all the tricks people have posted.
And I am in finance, so I agree with Steven's suggestion that the author got the column descriptions mixed up.

blue

The dancer is just an illusion...she is not spinning at all!

Andrew

One problem I didn't see in a quick scan of the comments: Clockwise is arbitrary. It depends on whether you look at the dancer from above or below.

Eric Ho

It's true. the dancer is just an illusion. I copied the dancer to me cellphone and went to the bar the next days. I looked at her spin before a beer, and after every beer. Here are the findings (same after 3 trials):

Before beer: Spinning clockwise, mainly.
After 1 beer: not spinning but just going on a 180 degrees turn left and right
After 2 beers: same as after 1 beer
After 3 beers: same as after 2 beers
After 4 beers: same as after 3 beers
After 5 beers: assumed its the same as after 4 beers.

I tried to see her spinning covering her bottom half and covering the top half. It did make a little difference.

ps: economists are no longer social scientists?

Amit

you have got to be kidding me...
the dancer actually SWITCHES HER ROTATION, its not an optical illusion....

the whole test is screwed up.

Ken Liu

I'd agree with Surenda, the image isn't actually spinning. It is a 2D silhouette animation, which can be viewed as coming at you or away from you. Try getting a screenshot of the side profile and you'll see that it can be either left or right hand/leg at any given moment.

One way to explain it is that it's an elaborate version of this spinning coin animation:
O I O I O I O

For those of you still insisting it's actually spinning, get a few others to watch with you at the same time and see if everyone is in consensus about the direction and switching.

My experience? I've had a lot of exposure to these optical illusions because my daughter was fascinated with them since an early age (i.e. motorized optical illusion toys on Baby Einstein videos).

-Ken

Krunk

Steve P.

It's not entirely scientific... One can make the dancer switch by focusing on the bottom stabilizing foot.

Evan

Any guesses on what the ability to change your perception of the spin indicates? Perhaps an enlarged corpus callosum?

discordian

Prof Levitt - I wonder if sometime, maybe in a future blog, you could let us in on what computer software you use to do your various statistical analysis? Most statisticians I work with use Statistica and/or JMP and this is in the manufacturing world.

AND HOW DARE YOU GROUP US ENGINEERS WITH COMPUTER SCIENTISTS!!!! :D

Lloyd Davis

hmmmm... some interesting biases showing here - non-economics Social Scientists are less rational than economists (mmm...) and that readers of the freakonomics blog who chose to submit their thoughts on this pile of tosh form a representative sample.

Just read your moderation policy below and realise that "pile of tosh" might be considered abusive... feel free to expunge it :)

Torben

I think I can see her spining in both direction. I gave her a look for some times and clearly saw when she changes her pattern. By watching a randomly changing pattern, you can be left/right mind person. So what is the point here? It doen't detetct at all /or sth is going on in my brain.

Patrick

Here's an easy way to make the dancer switch. Fields of vision are controlled by the opposite side of the brain. So, if you are seeing the dancer spin counter-clockwise (left brain), turn your head to the right, so the the dancer is the extreme left of your field of vision. Do the opposite, obviously if you are seeing the dancer spin clockwise.

Rob

What percentage of the respondents were able to see her spinning counter-clockwise and then clockwise? My wife and I were both able to see her spinning counter-clockwise initially, and then switching clockwise after a minute.

Thanks
R

thomasart

She always starts spinning clockwise for me (a visual/performing artist), but I can change her direction at will by putting the image on the far edge of my peripheral vision.

mkagan

I am blind in my right eye, therefore I must be processing the image through the right side of my brain. I can only see the image spinning counter-clockwise. So Steve I think you have it right, their conclusion is backwards.

Olga

Another easy way to make the dancer switch is to close your eyes and imagine her spinning the other direction for a few seconds. I noticed this when a(n extended) blink caused the switch for me. I definitely thought the animation was actually changing (Torben), until I realized I could control it.

I don't know about the left-brained/right-brained distinction - I'd be curious to see how well this "test" corresponds to people's biases about their own preference (and whether than means the test isn't perfect, or whether people have misconceptions about what brain-edness means).

mike

I saw her spinning counter clockwise at first then clock wise. Then for a couple of minutes i could only see her clockwise until i noticed if I focus on the text right below the dancer and then looked back at the dancer she would switch back to counter clock wise. Every time I looked at the text she would switch. Very strange.

g p burdell

I think the real question is: What types of people read this blog?

What if the majority of engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians and economists who frequent this site happen to be those who are reasonably balanced with their left brains versus right brains - a trait that might attract us to this type of site (and your book) in the first place. If that was considered, then maybe the original model might still hold true.

Anyway, I don't think this is scientific at all.

George

wtanaka

When I first saw this, I tried looking at it 6 times, and all 6 times, I perceived her leg as swinging toward me 100% of the time.

So if her leg was initially on the left, she looked like she was spinning counterclockwise, and if her leg is initially on the right, she looked like she was spinning clockwise