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Can You Really Be Left Brained or Right Brained?

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The brain, of course, is split into two hemispheres. But is there such a thing as being right-brained or left-brained?

Personality

Whether you’re a “right-sided” creative type or a “left-leaning” number junkie, one hemisphere doesn’t dominate the other to determine your personality. In fact, most neuroscientists never accepted the idea in the first place. Your brain is too smart for that. It’d be wasteful to have one side work harder and better than the other.

Still, the left-right theory has survived for years. It became popular when Nobel prize winner Roger W. Sperry started studying epilepsy. He discovered that snipping the corpus callosum—a band of fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres—could curb seizures. But it also caused some strange behavior, leading Sperry to believe that different halves of the brain controlled different activities. (Before this, scientists believed that the left side was all that mattered, and the right side of the brain was merely "a sleeping partner.")

Sperry warned us not to treat his findings as dogma. He said the theory was “an idea in general with which it is very easy to run wild.” But run wild it did. Media outlets went nuts over Sperry’s story, perpetuating a myth that both halves of your brain work in isolation.

Physiology

Here’s the truth: No matter what your personality type may be, you use both parts of your brain almost all the time. Researchers at the University of Utah found that brain activity in both hemispheres is basically the same. One side of your brain does not compete with the other. If anything, it complements it.

Of course, brain mapping studies show that different regions of the noggin do control different activities. But one side is rarely stronger than the other—and one side rarely owns a monopoly on certain skills. Math skills, for example, are a hallmark “left brained” talent. Both sides, though, have a hand in making you a math whiz (the left side helps you count while the right side helps you estimate numbers). Meanwhile, in the language department, the left side helps you understand syntax while the right side helps you understand nuanced cues, like speech inflections. The hemispheres work together for efficiency.

According to the American Physiological Association, there's evidence that more creative people tend to have less lateralized brains—meaning that the two hemispheres share more of the processing. But even then, the left brain/right brain issue isn't simple: Some people have their brains reversed or are missing half of their brain and still do OK.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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