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Monday, January 17, 2011

The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life

Here's a challenge: look at the display above and, as quickly as you can, say out loud the color of each of the words (not the word itself).  Try it.

Hard to do, right?  Why is it so difficult?  The reason has to do with how the two sides of your brain work, and in this exercise they are in conflict as they battle over the correct verbal expression.  

Or, consider this common difficulty:  you hop in your car, meaning to drive to the grocery store, but you're distracted by other problems and suddenly realize that instead of driving to the store you’ve instead been traveling the usual route to work.  Swearing under your breath, you turn the car around and head in the right direction.  What happened here?

In the 1970s I became very interested in the workings of the brain, and once I began reading how the two sides of the brain operate, what I learned has informed my life ever since.  Forty or more times each day (no exaggeration) I reference this dichotomy when addressing problems both major and minor.  This habit has been such a boon to me, oiling the task of living well, that I thought I'd pass it on to you.

What I'm about to say concerning the brain is necessarily a simplification, and would doubtless earn me a flunking grade in a course on anatomy, but will suffice for the purpose of this blog post:  an exploration of how useful even this basic explanation can be in making routine decisions. 

(Click To Enlarge)
In this generalized description, the left side of the brain is primarily concerned with analytical thinking of an abstract nature (words, numbers, language structure), while the right side is the expert on physical matters and creativity (sports, dancing, singing, making love, dreaming things up, emotions, getting from here to there). Thus in the experiment above, the right side of the brain recognizes the color, but the left side concentrates on the word, producing a brain freeze.  This complicates verbalizing the color since a contrary message is being given by the spelling of the word.
Phrased another way, the right brain "feels" and the left brain "tells."

I should mention that, contrary to what you might expect, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and the right side the left (except in left-handed people where this is all more complicated).  Thus most people find it easiest to write with the right hand, since the left side of the brain, dealing as it does in words, can best communicate with that hand.

Roger Sperry
Medicine had long suspected that the left side of the brain was wired into words because those with injuries to that side of the head often could not speak.  The major breakthrough in understanding brain functions came in the 1960s with the work of Dr. Roger Sperry and his associates.  To help patients suffering from grand mal epileptic seizures, the doctors severed the corpus callosum, the tissue that connects the two sides of the brain.  This worked, stopping the seizures, but it resulted in the two sides of the brain losing their usual means of communication.   

Subsequent experiments on these individuals produced startling revelations about brain function locations in the cerebellum.  If a subject touched a comb with the left hand (right side of the brain---the side that deals in physicality) and was asked to name the object, puzzled silence followed.  But if asked to use the comb, the subject immediately ran it through his/her hair.  However, as soon as the right hand (left side of the brain, dealing with abstract ideas) touched the comb, the subject instantly said that word aloud, but then, of course, proved unable to demonstrate the object's use.  Interestingly, it was determined that the right side of the brain could not count more than four objects correctly, so that, for example, if the subject was told to gather six marbles from a jar with the left hand, this could not be done with accuracy.  The right and left sides of the brain turned out to have different opinions about tasks.  The wife of one subject told Dr. Sperry and his team that if her husband was involved in some chore, say moving a dresser, and she asked if he wanted help, even if he said yes his right-brain would push her away when she came to his aid.

How is this information useful?  The "wrong route to the grocery store" mentioned in the beginning of this post is an example.  The right side of the brain drives the car, and, unless notified of the desired route, will automatically take the usual one.  Consequently, every time I start my car's engine I say or think "grocery store, right brain," and avoid a mistaken trip to the law school.  The right brain is very good at planning routes and rarely makes mistakes as to this, but it does need an instruction to think about the issue.  The left side of the brain knows the names of the streets, but has no idea of their relationships to each other.  This same dichotomy explains why texting while driving is so dangerous.  Texting (dealing with words and their spelling) is a left-brain activity, but driving is right-brained; it’s similar to the color/word experiment where the two sides of the brain are doing very different tasks at the same time.

Have you ever noticed that in dreams you can't read?  If I find I can look at a page but the words don't make sense, I know I'm asleep.  The right brain is the creative side and most dreams are very right-brain oriented, so the numbers and words in them are a muddle. 

Knowing which side of the brain does what makes many tasks easier.  If you’re dancing, playing a sport, making love, or trying to draw a straight line, you have to let the right-brain do the work and keep the left-brain out of it.  Letting the analytical left-brain get involved in sex is a sure path to disaster, and accounts for many cases of impotence.

But unless the right-brain is instructed to think ahead of time about the task, it will keep doing it the same old way.  A basketball player who’s bad at making free throws won’t improve by practicing unless he/she first concentrates on what is going wrong.  Similarly, if the right-brain is engaged in making love, it will just perform the same maneuvers over and over (much like driving the same route to work) unless ahead of time the right-brain---very creative if given free rein---is told to be inventive.  Let the right brain organize itself for the task to come.  Trust me: doing this will improve your sex life (or ability to dance, hit a ball, build a sand castle, or any other physical activity).

Law school, on the other hand, is purely a left-brain experience.  When my students are sitting in class, their left-brains are engaged (or damn well better be), but their right-brains are bored.  Too much left-brain activity is bad for anyone, and I tell my students they’ll go nuts in law school unless they have some right-brain outlets (exercise regularly, join a law school sports team, go out dancing, etc.).

Much, much more can be accomplished by anyone leading a life that keeps the left-brain/right-brain “in mind” (pun intended).  It’s a valuable organizing tool that should be in the repertoire of anyone wanting to do things well.

Roger Sperry, accepting the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1981, used his own discovery when, quite wonderfully, he concluded his speech by saying, “The great pleasure and feeling in my right brain is more than my left brain can find the words to tell you."
Related Post:
"Life's Little (But Important) Rules," April 23, 2010
"How To Make Ethical Decisions," December 1, 2010
"Good Sex/Bad Sex: Advice on Making Love," November 9, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

1 comment:

  1. This inspires me more than anything on taking practicable steps towards getting free from left brain dominance.