A few months ago I was chatting with my old pal, and top neuroscientist, Adrian Owen.  Adrian and I went to University together many years ago. I don’t want to say how long ago it was, but suffice to say that Charles Darwin was Head of Department. Anyway, I digress.

Adrian and I were chatting about a possible brain-based project and I decided to Google the word ‘brain’. That’s when I noticed something very odd. The vast majority of the images showed a brain looking to its right – that is, the viewer was seeing the left lobe. Adrian pointed out that, structurally speaking, one side of the brain is no more interesting to than the other, and so wondered what was going on.

I was aware that several psychologists – including Professor Chris McManus – have discovered that the majority of people featured in portraits also tended to look to their right. Over the years, researchers have suggested several possible explanations for the effect, including, for example, the idea that the left side of the face is more expressive than the right, or that Westerners read left to right and so would encounter the front of the face first.

But did the bias even extend to images of brains? To find out, Adrian and I downloaded hundreds of brain images, categorized them and discovered that a whopping 80% were indeed looking to their right! It was true regardless of whether the image included a head or not.

We have recently published our findings in the scientific journal i-perception, and you can read the paper here. (P.S. The image in the paper is wrongly labelled – the correct image is shown below).


  1. I wonder if this is linked to the same phenomenon where (as farmers from time immemorial know) that most cattle within any given area tend to all be facing the same direction even when out of sight of one another.

    Coincidence or are they watching television?

    1. Studies have been done on this. Cattle (and deer) tend to align themselves with magnetic north

  2. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I had to make an effort to get the left/right straight in my head (pun reluctantly included.) I eventually realised that it was the difference between “their left” and just “left” which by default I assume is “my left.”

    The image in the paper with the “incorrect” labels just says “left facing” which is correct to me, it is indeed facing to the left from my perspective, but from the perspective of the head it is “their right”. Throw into the mix that I am seeing the “left face” of the head…

    Without context do we assume relative to ourself or relative to the other party?

    I’m also wondering about the process of reading, on my first read did I interpret “looking to their right” as just “looking to the right”?

    Stage left and house right also comes to mind…

    1. Yes… I am aware of that but who has done a study to determine how photographers align themselves when photographing said livestock? If they are left-handed… do they photograph from the same side as right-handed photographers?
      Do digital photographers align themselves differently than cellulose film photographers? Has this trend changed over the years?
      Will the cattle (and photographers) flip themselves should the magnetic poles shift?
      Should we rotate our barbecue grilles in response to any sudden shift in the magnetic poles? Does this call for another flavor of sauce?

      I sense another white paper from this…

  3. Hello Richard,

    I’m confused, according to what I see below, what appears to me to be a left side profile of a face or head, you say is “facing right” and visa-versa. Can you explain in simple terms why what appears to be left facing is really right facing?

    Thank You,


    1. Bob, if it’s any consolation I’m thoroughly confused too! The ones on the left are looking to the left, those on the right are right-angled, in my books!


  4. There is a fairly simple explanation I’d say. Little to do with psychology or reading. Rather, most people are right handed and those people find it mechanically easier to draw the nose, mouth and chin profile when the subject is facing to the right. So it’s more to do with the way the anatomy of the right hand and the way we hold pencils/brushes etc. Probably the same explanation for pictures of the brain. Due to its pictorial shape, the right hand finds it more natural to draw it ‘right facing’. Notice that Richard found 80% of pictures facing right. Right handed people make up 70-95% of population.

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