Are you dominated by the right or left hemisphere of your brain? Barring brain injury, all people use both, yet many of us feel that one side or the other is stronger or more in control. But what does that actually mean?
For many years, the popular explanation has been that the left brain houses reason and logic, while the right brain holds emotion and creativity. I've always found this explanation deeply unsatisfactory. For one thing, I think of myself as left brain-dominated and I don't like the idea that I'm lacking in either emotion or creativity. Fortunately, that old right-side-creative/left-side-logical view has been thoroughly disproved.
And yet, there clearly are differences in thought patterns from one person to another and many of us do appear to fall into a right-brain-dominated or left-brain-dominated pattern. Which is why I was completely fascinated by the RSA animation made from psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist's explanation of the true difference between right-brain and left-brain function.
It's not just humans who have divided brains, he explains, animals have them too. And he illustrates the difference with a bird pecking on the ground for seeds. That bird must focus in on the seeds to differentiate them from the grit around them, and it does so with the left side of its brain. Meantime, the right side of its brain is constantly scanning its surroundings for possible predators, and also for family members and friends, since birds warn each other about danger. Both functions are equally important, and equally necessary for survival.
That quick illustration gave me a whole new understanding of my husband, whom we both believe to be right-brain dominated. When we go food shopping, my approach is to decide what I want to buy, and then go to the sections where those items are sold. His is to walk up and down each aisle, looking to see if there's anything there we might need or want. Recently we went to a mall where I'd been several times and that he'd only visited once more than two years ago. Yet he knew better than I did how the place was laid out and where things were. He even somehow knew there was a parking lot on the back side of the building even though he'd never gone there. And in one particularly spectacular display of right-brainedness, he spent an entire train ride watching out for a weird, apparently mentally ill character we'd fleetingly seen on the platform.
You need both.
The fact that one of us is right brain-dominated and the other left brain-dominated may be what makes us a good team. I think of of John Lennon (right brain) and Paul McCartney (left brain) as a powerful combination for the same reason. But the truth is being so strongly dominated by one side or the other isn't the best use of our brains.
The neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor came to that conclusion after a stroke temporarily disabled her left brain leaving her only conscious of her right hemisphere, which she describes this way in her dramatic TED Talk: "We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place."
That sounds like a pretty good place to be. And I remember, when I was younger, when I was considered passionate and in-the-moment by my high school friends, I was in that right hemisphere world a lot more. But college, and then my career as a journalist, taught me the need to focus, to zero in quickly on what was important, to be methodical and data-driven and to depend a lot on words, which mostly come from the left hemisphere.
And so, over the years I've become largely left-brain dominated. If you're a hyper-focused high achiever, I bet you are, too. McGilchrist argues forcefully that Western Civilization has evolved to particularly value left-brain skills. So it makes sense that we've come to be good at what our society prizes.
How do we regain better balance within our own heads? There are a few things we can do that might stimulate right-brain activity:
Use your "wrong" hand. Using our non-dominant hand (the left one for most people) to draw, write, or even squeeze a rubber ball can activate your right hemisphere.
Play music. Listening to music and playing a musical instrument are very right-brained activities. This may explain why musicians such as my husband tend to be more right-brained than most people.
Draw or paint. The visual arts draw on the right brain more than the left.
Meditate. This is good for your brain in many ways, and it may stimulate your right hemisphere.
Is it worth taking the trouble to try to activate your right hemisphere more? Listening to Bolte Taylor's description of her right-brained experience certainly makes it seem so. In her right brain, she says, she was completely in the moment, captivated by the magnificence of the world around here. "And in this moment," she says, "we are perfect, we are whole and we are beautiful."
Sounds pretty good to me.
Here's the McGilchrist animation: