Sunday, April 18, 2010

Right brain, left brain (or tl;dr)

(If you're not up on your internet memes the subtitle means 'too long, didn't read'.. it's meant to be a warning :D)

Last night I rewatched Jill Bolte Taylor's 'A Stroke of Insight'. If you have not watched this video I strongly urge you to do so - there is a link to it from my very first blog post here.

I am not sure exactly what prompted me to watch it again, but no matter how many times I've seen it I am still very struck by her message. If you've read my blog or had the misfortune to chat with me during a philosophical mood you will have been exposed to my deep interest in right/left brain theory. Jill's message has been a keystone to the crazy metaphysical idea wad that's in my brain.

What caught my eye last night was actually in the comments. I like to read a bit of the comments to anything that has affected me - a presentation, book, etc. I can only read so much (people tend to get a little crazy in the comments and reviews section) but generally I'll pick a couple of the highest and lowest ratings. There was one fellow who brought up drugs - which is a comment I've heard before. Things like LSD inducing a state similar to what Ms. Taylor describes. I've also commented myself how I've seen similarities between her description and meditation, as well as similarities between both of those and 'art mode'.

Mini-digression ('art mode', 'R mode'):
If you are an artist reading this you are likely aware of 'art mode' or 'right brain mode'. It's a state many artists enter while doing their work - it is a little different than just a state of being totally focused. I have been completely absorbed in non-right-brain activities before, the feeling is not the same. When you are deeply in right-brain art-mode really the best thing I can compare it to (in my limited experience of the world) is meditation. Real meditation (which I do not achieve often, even when I try) where you are there but not there, where there is no time, where you have to adjust to the return of your consciousness to it's normal state, where you come out of it feeling like your brain has just done jumping jacks instead of not-thinking for an hour and feels activated and refreshed.

So the comment was that if Jill reached this 'state' by a massive stroke, if others have reached it through drug use or through mental training than it is not something metaphysical or magical, it's just a subfunction of our brain. His comments were not well received - as many people (myself included) do see meditation and Jill's talk as a window into more spiritual things. BUT.. I do not at all disagree with him.

As Jill points out, it does not take a neuroanatomist to see that the brain is clearly bisected. Her comments about two entirely separate ways of processing input have, I believe, been well proven and documented by studies done on patients who have had their corpus callosum split.
Mini-digression (Split corpus callosum patients)
If you are unaware of these studies, in the normal brain the corpus callosum is a bridge between the two hemispheres (the only bridge). It's a HUGE bridge, comprised of millions of brain fibers. Several decades ago surgery to transect the corpus callosum was used to try to treat refractory seizure disorders, one by-product of that though was valuable information about the differences between the hemispheres as shown in this little demonstration. In a normal person there is not 'right-brain' and 'left-brain' working in isolation, we are well integrated. People who do not subscribe to right/left brain theories generally say that if you have an intact brain the integration is so complete that the argument is invalid. This may be true, I don't know. But what I do know is that if any of us were to have our corpus callosum split, both hemispheres would go on processing information, 'thinking' if you will, in their own individual ways. And further, I believe that those ways would be different. It would be the left side that we hear from though - few would disagree that the left side controls speech and 'thinks' in words.

So if the gentleman's comment - that right brain experiences are just a subset or abnormality of 'normal' brain function, and if we take that to be true, then why would we care? Well, I said before that I don't disagree with him, and yet I still think that this is a very important thing. Here is my reason why...

Warning: I'm digressing wholly into my personal little theories of life, the universe and everything here - I am not trying to change anyone else's views or start any arguments. I do not research neurophysiology in my spare time, my observations are purely as a layperson. So please feel free to leave comments - in fact I'd love to hear what you have to say - but please don't be inflammatory and don't take my individual little ideas personally!
There is obviously a continuum - Jill Bolte Taylor, during her stroke, was in a state of minimal left brain function (relative to 'normal'). Her descriptions were tremendously valuable, but obviously you could not function in a state like that. There are stories about people with right brain defects (some very interesting ones in Oliver Sacks' 'The man who mistook his wife for a hat'). But if you were (theoretically, obviously) to take a person with their left brain chopped off (we'll call this person Ron) and someone with their right brain chopped off (who we'll call Len), I bet you'd be able to pick Ron out of a crowd much easier than Len.

Len would be able to speak eloquently, he would approach things very linearly, he would see the world in symbols (letters, numbers, and representational images would make lots of sense to him). He could explain many things to you, but might have difficulty doing so with abstract concepts.

Ron on the other hand might end up just standing there taking it all in. Ron would have a hard time communicating to you what he was experiencing if you rely on words. If you give him materials he might be able to communicate visually by creating an image that invokes feelings in you, that speaks to you. He would likely be better able to communicate abstract and broad-reaching concepts to you than he would be able to tell you how to program a VCR (oh, did I just date myself? How to set up an iPod then.)

Which of these two men would you think was smarter if you met them on the street? My guess is Len. My reasoning is that (I believe) our society is very geared toward left-brain functions. We value them, we foster them, and I would go so far as to say we undernurture the right brain functions. I think few people would spend enough time with Ron to even figure out what he had to communicate and likely not place high value on it once it was communicated.

The reason I am willing to say this in writing is based on personal observation of myself. Yes, n=1. This is what I outlined in that first blog post over a year ago. There was a time, during my post-secondary education, that I studied science and I drew. I observed that drawing helped me to focus and I retained lessons much better if I did so. I'd never not drawn, so I'd not known anything different. In hindsight I think I had a good right/left brain balance at that time.

Then I spent years of further intensive study and work, and through necessity and also not realizing what would happen, I stopped drawing. I didn't even really doodle. For years. And the shock came to me when I realized that I no longer *could* draw - for the first time in my life my pencil marks on paper just didn't look the way I wanted them to, when they always had in the past. It was horribly frustrating.

The solution turned out to be an art class where I did (for the umpteenth time) Betty Edwards' right-brain exercises. So my n=1 suggests that I 'trained myself' out of balance, too far to the left. The consequences were that I was still very functional in my left-brain job, but I could not draw (representational art, abstract art is a different matter). Nor could I turn off the 'brain chatter' in my head, that constant running dialogue that most of us have, to the point that I couldn't sleep for having a constant stream of consciousness about all that was going on in my life. I also paid little attention to the world around me, I felt very much like an individual and all of the many labels I wore became so important, truly all-important and all-defining. I felt disconnected and isolated from the world around me. It wasn't a good state for me at all. I didn't realize this, of course, until I was retrained back to the right a bit - and only then did I understand what had been the matter.

Now if we can be 'trained' toward our left or right side - again, still working with the concept that a normal brain integrates. And if left brain dominant persons would fit more seamlessly into our society (or at least garner more respect in it). And if we look at our typical education system that promotes language, analytical thinking, and (dare I say) left brain processes over right brain processes. Is it unreasonable to think that if we look at all humans - past and present, near and far, all cultures - that the typical person reading this blog is perhaps in a society that is, on average, left of center? Is it unreasonable to think that the Dalai Lama is perhaps further to the 'right' than the typical American? Now even if that is true - we have no way of knowing how far right or left any group is. Maybe North America is dead center, or maybe we're 2/3 over to the left, who knows. I am speaking only in relative terms.

But when you listen to Ms. Taylor speak of connectedness, of energies, of beauty. For me it conjures up things like James Cameron's Avatar - and every other tale contrasting the 'advanced' society against the society that is 'in tune with' the natural world. In our own reality societies that embrace left brain development seem far more likely to conquer and oust societies that do not. I read an essay by an artist (I wish I could recall his name) who spent time living with the Navajo peoples. The Native Americans are a culture that are often seen as having historically been more 'in tune' with the natural world (similarities between Pocahontas and Avatar aside). In his essay he discussed how living there he found that nobody passed judgement on the fact that he was an artist - it was as valid as any other job. He did not have to justify his profession, in contrast to his experiences in the city.

So what if we are left of center? What if even we who try to foster the right side are still way to the left? What if we are training our children to be the same through failing to nurture and listen to their right brain input? Actually teaching them not to listen to it - but instead to break things down, to rely on the symbols that society has built, to never spend time turning down the brain chatter, to live as a separate entity from the world around you? Is that a problem? I think it might be, in the long run.

I've been struggling with my art the last couple of months. I feel like everything I touch turns to crud. I feel frustrated. I think this was the impetus for me to rewatch Ms. Taylor's talk. And it started me thinking about these things again. As I said - this is only my personal little take on things, but it is important to me. When I do more art I feel more connected to the world, I really see the things around me, my mindfulness improves. When I am in what I would term 'left brain dominant' mode I like to look at pretty things. When I am in 'right brain too' mode I like to look at everything, because it's all pretty.

And since I am a left-brained creature (I feel that I am left of center and will always struggle with that) I have to put it all into words. But now, having written all this down, I think it is time for me to go foster my right brain a little bit. I have a sketchbook and charcoal, a beautiful spring day, and if I choose it - no internet, no conversation, no language other than the language of the world around me coming in through my senses.

I'll let you know what happens.

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