Left Brain/Right Brain


I always thought it lovely that people use the most sophisticated technology available in their era and try to describe the brain with it.  A steam engine for Freud.  A computer for the moderns.  Everyone acknowledging that the brain is more complex than anything they can possibly describe.

Sometimes you have to simplify things in order to use a concept.  I always had trouble with this “left brain/right brain” thing.  People have laterality.  They have dominant sides. I am right handed.  Minor medical problems show up on the left side of my body a little more readily.

View of the brain's two lobes - left and rightMy brother of blessed memory, who had Asperger’s syndrome, was diagnosed early on as having an “ambivalent” mind and a laterality problem by an overzealous school headmaster who really believed he had seen it all.  My mother of blessed memory suddenly “remembered” something which I had never heard before, about my brother having tried to write with his left hand, and her thinking it was a bad thing, and trying to make him write with his right hand. My guess is it was an epiphenomenon of the Asperger’s maybe, but dear Harry’s problems obviously went a lot deeper than laterality.

I remember reading some of the “split brain” experiments, stories of poor folks who had a disconnect between the right and left parts of their brain.  Coming up with words to describe things they saw in their left cortical visual fields, coming up with pictures they could describe in their right visual fields.

It is a far cry from this sort of thing to the “Use your left brain and get logical” or “just let your right brain feel and stop trying to analyze everything.

I was more than a little surprised when the director of our improvisational theater workshop told me basically to leave my left brain out of things, to feel my way, to create a “where” — a setting I could see and feel for a scene we were developing onstage. I had not realized until then how right brain I really was. My husband, told to use less words and analysis also, was not particularly happy with his output.

Both of us were complimented on what a wonderful job we had done. Neither of us thought we had done a very good job.  Our director is and was good at what he does.

I was amazed how different I felt trying to do more feelings and less words.  There is something very real, I think especially after that experience, about switching from one side of the brain to the other. The idea of doing it consciously, on command, was surreal to me.

It was easier for me to think of doing it mechanically. I love a good labyrinth walk. There are lots of sites that deal with labyrinths, and I have written about them before. A labyrinth is kind of like a  maze but it is strictly one-path that just winds around a lot.  That means you can’t make a wrong turn and be forced elsewhere.  There is only one way through.  You have to “trust the force” and put one foot in front of the other and travel a sinuous path that doubles back on itself so frequently that distance has no meaning, with the single long path being encased in what sometimes seems like an amazingly small area.

These walking paths are often found on the floors of churches.  People have mystical experiences while walking them. The one at Chartres cathedral was a pretty good deal for a long time if you could not make a pilgrimage all the way to the Holy Land for a crusade.  More lately, I found the exact same labyrinth pattern on a patio outside a Methodist church in San Diego.  They even provide night lights so you can go walk the labyrinth any time you feel the need.

Even now people, including me, have amazing insights when they walk a labyrinth.  My patients have done it.  I have done it with my husband, frequently. For me, the insights seem to be more likely to come at the hairpin turns in the path. Especially when my head whips around (feels like whipping no matter how slow I try to walk) from right to left; counterclockwise. Music more than art, wild visions and imaginings seem to flow in those moments. I believe some of the blood in my brain, or anybody’s brain, would move from the left part to the right part.  What could be a more direct anatomical analogue for the spiritual experience?  I have heard stories of spiritual experiences from people with right hemisperic strokes.  Sometimes.  Sometimes not.

Cerebral localization is something I grew up with.  I memorized the findings, mostly from 19th century European surgeons, of what happened at different places in the brain, believing with my heart as well as my brain that things taken by stroke could not return.

But they do; they most certainly do.

We know that stem cells exist until death. We know, that with patience and understanding “restitutio ad integrum”  (return to a perfect original whole) is something I had never believed possible in the brain.  Now I know it is possible. It takes motivation and belief, the most powerful of all human forces. Unfortunately, in our health care system right now, it may also take an amazing amount of money.  This enrages me beyond words, and is a place I will not go to more right now, except to say this is what life is like right now.

I have another question in my mind right now. Did my director in improvisational theater shift the circulation in my brain, just by asking me to use less words and more feelings? He certainly seemed confident that he did, but that is his way and nature and he knows nothing about my special relationship with brains.

I think that he did indeed switch my cerebral circulation.  Oh, I had believed myself to be fairly well “equilibrated” in my use of hemispheres, a devotee of spiritual as well as intellectual practices.  But, no.  He stretched me to a place I and my brain have not been to.

We can change something about our brains by command alone, if we try. Another hymn to human desire and motivation. Oh, I think the data could be checked with imaging techniques, but I am resigned to the fact I may never be mainstream enough to be able to check such hypotheses with neuroscience.

I don’t have to. The power of the brain can be discerned clearly enough by naturalistic observation alone.  This too is science, and a root of insight.

There is more in this science than anyone has yet dreamed of. I am going to quiet my left brain, now, as I could use some sleep.

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