It’s easy to fall into the trap of simple dualism. Aside from intellectual laziness, the fact is that the mind has evolved from a very basic good/bad, move towards/move away structure, which we find in the simplest of organisms. In creatures with highly evolved brains as ourselves we have the potential for a much more nuanced testing, and yet the underling process remains the same.
All that as a disclaimer for what I want to talk about in this post, and that’s the left-brain right-brain split (see, even the physical structure of the human brain is dichotomous). On one hand it’s easy to assign labels and even judgement on the different tasks the two hemispheres are responsible for, but that does a gross disservice to the remarkable, subtle, and interconnected roles that various parts of the human brain are responsible for. The brain is a whole, not various bits cobbled together like a Ford Taurus.
All that said, we have long known that different regions of the brain do assume specific tasks, and when that region is lost through disease or mechanical damage, other parts may not be able assume the burden of the missing skill, depending on the age and health of the individual.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the roles the two hemispheres play: the left side of the brain is responsible for linear analysis, language, logic, and for comparing existing events to the past and projecting into the future. The right side is known for vision, intuition, creativity, holistic understanding, and strong emotion
The problem of course arises when we assign these characteristics as hard and fast. The reality is that both sides are deeply interconnected via the corpus callosum, and no task engages just one hemisphere while the other one stands around whistling.
We do know that some folks utilise more of one side than the other as an overall way of viewing and understanding the world. When I think of myself my first response to this is to imagine myself as predominantly left-brained because I’m a writer and I’m very analytical. But then I remind myself I went to art school for a reason, I used to do a lot of visual art, and I’m quite an emotional and intuitive person. So much for neat categories. And when I do this test for hemispherical dominance, I’m way over to the right side!
What’s got me in a buzz about this stuff was this amazing TED video I watched the other day. In it, this neurobiologist got to experience a stroke that debilitated her left hemisphere leaving her right to take over perception of the world on its own.
What’s amazing to me about it is that she achieved for a moment something akin to what Buddhists strive to accomplish through meditation: the silencing of the inner chatter and a greater awareness of our connectedness with the external world. And that makes me wonder about how much of what we do in meditation is about learning to slow down and repress the left hemisphere? If that’s the case, those of us with right hemisphere dominance might be halfway there, and it might be the case that those with such dominance might be more likely to engage in such practice in the first place.
Is it possible that while left-brain people could likely use the benefits of meditation the most, they would also find it the most difficult to practice and learn?
Can you imagine what that would be like, to perceive the world without using words or language, without awareness of past or future, with only physical senses, intuition, and an all-encompassing holistic perception. It sounds both terrifying and amazing.
At the same time, the consequence for this propensity is all too evident in the following pages on that site, which outline how the right-brained individual must adapt to the left-brain-biased institution of higher education. Although this is not how you learn, the university won’t adapt to your needs, you must adapt to theirs
This bias is prevalent, and I’m certain it has a strong role in my own difficulties in adapting to the dominant structures of mainstream culture: hierarchy, subservience, inflexible temporal structure, and prescribed outcomes.
Long ago I read a fascinating anthropology text called Maps and Dreams, and in it the author tries to decode the Beaver people’s way of understanding and interpreting the world around them. How Brody describes it sounds profoundly right-brain: intuitive, holistic, disorganized, and contingent. He asserts that this is the way of human beings when they are dependent on the natural world, which does not follow human left-brain needs for order and punctuality.
The much derided “Indian Time” is a manifestation of this –if it doesn’t feel right to go to work now, you don’t go; you start a task when it feels the proper thing to do. Of course this flies in the face of the dominant left-brain paradigm of punching the clock at 7:00 AM.
This deeply embedded sense of how to be gives rise to prejudicial assumptions of laziness, stupidity and incompetence, rather than an entirely different way of perceiving the world. Brody examines these people without moral approbation, and attempts to see the utility of their way of being; of course it emerges very quickly in traditional activities such as hunting and gathering.
All this is a long way from Bolte Taylor’s experience of a stroke, but I think it reveals how different we all are and the assumptions that try and force us into one unified mold. Interestingly, Tracy tests as predominantly left-brained, which is very good for us as a couple. She takes care of order and organization; I take care of adventure and passion. Together we balance each other out and in a way get the benefits of both worlds.