Jill Bolke Taylor, neuroscientist, gave an amazing account of having and then recovering from a stroke on the left side of her brain. It changed her life and her perspective. Before the stroke, she says her life was dominated by her left brain, with its emphasis on being right, dominant, as well as self-absorbed and clueless about beingness (life).
The left hemisphere is propelled by ranking and status, manipulating and controlling. It loves to feel authority over details and creates stories out of what it knows. It is constantly chattering, criticizing, judging, categorizing, separating individual things from the larger picture, using any patterns it has learned. As Taylor (2008, p. 33) says: “Our ego mind revels in our individuality, honors our uniqueness, and strives for independence.” The left brain is the seat of the ego, which when it gets too big, can do a lot of damage in the world with its endless optimism about how right it is.
If one lets the left brain dominate, one will be very literal-minded, with little understanding of metaphor and little flexibility about alternative perspectives. Left-braininess is about following rules literally, not attending to the spirit of a law. Left-braininess leads to difficulty expressing emotions (except perhaps anger) and trouble picking up the expression of emotion in others. The vast social skills humans have are governed by right brain processes so when these are not in use, social-emotional nuance in communication is missed, leading to misunderstandings (and defensiveness).
Taylor’s stroke in the left hemisphere incapacitated the left brain processes. She spent months without them and years getting them back. The loss of the left-brain’s “brain chatter” and narrow thinking allowed her to enjoy living with right brain sensibilities. It was then she realized how much of life she had missed previously. Her way of living was narrow and in many ways false.
The right brain is more in tuned with reality, existing in the present moment and noticing the big picture. The right brain is aware of the energy fields, the connection of everything to everything else. Right braininess in its fullest sense brings about the joys of “Nirvana” or “enlightenment”. Taylor says (p. 49): “In the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquility, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.”
As she healed over 8 years, Taylor learned to avoid a return to left-brain dominance and instead learned “step to the right” and allow the right hemisphere more say. Each time she gets caught up in too much left-braininess she is able to stop and shift her perception to the big picture and thereby changd her mindset. A right-brain dominant orientation, sprinkled with the intellectual skills of the left-brain, leads to more wisdom about how to live life.
The dominance of the left-brain is encouraged by our culture, especially childrearing.
How do we propel children into left-brain dominance?
- Early life undercare which refers to the lack of the following in infancy: breastfeeding, nearly constant nurturing touch, responsiveness to cues. All of these nourish right brain development which is the maturational focus of the first 3 years of life (Schore, 1994; 2003a; 2003b) (see more here).
- Dismissal of children‘s emotions, so that they learn not to express them, trust them or develop them (characteristic of avoidant attachment which is left-brain focused)
- Frequency in environments where emotional expression is not safe or emotions are scary
- Media programming that is scary, leading to self-protective mechanisms and shut down of open learning (see more here)
- Schooling that focuses only on left-brain training (information), ignoring training of the emotions and perceptions of the right brain
- Lack of free, self-directed, physical play (which keeps the person in the present moment, nourishing the right brain)
When the left brain behaves unchecked, it behaves like a god, believing that only it matters (for a review, see McGilchrist, 2009). When it is allowed to be dominant, it tries to dismiss, ignore, kill off the right brain (despite the fact that it depends on the stores of experience the right brain collects).
In essence, to put it starkly, from infancy through schooling, our childrearing practices of late have been trying to suffocate the right brain.
What do all these experiences and environments lead to in adults? When one of these orientations is used to make social and moral decisions, it is an ethic.
Left brain dominant orientation: Me, me, me. Big ego. I’m an individual who needs no one. Let me be free to make my own way. I am invincible. Relationships are a waste of time, an annoyance. Empathy is only cognitive, not felt. I call this a detached imagination ethic.
Left brain reptilian orientation: You can’t trust people. Get as much status and stuff as you can. Use deception, trickery or whatever is needed to stay on top. I deserve it and I did it myself. Empathy and concern for others is stupid. I call this a vicious imagination ethic. (More here)
Contrast this with a right-brain orientation, an orientation that is encouraged by all major religions: We are all interconnected. The universe is one. What I do to you I do to myself. Love, compassion and joy are the energizers of the universe. Forgetting connection is disrespecting life. I call this an engagement ethic. (More here)
Here are ways to check whether your left or right brain is dominant—“yes” answers mean right brain is functioning. Use any “no” to give you a goal for behavioral change:
- Can you laugh at yourself?
- Are you awe-struck by the beauty of nature?
- Can you get on the floor and wrestle for fun?
- Can you act spontaneously and improvise (e.g., musically, socially, artistically)?
- Do you get into a “flow” state when doing an activity?
- Do you feel emotionally connected to all of humanity, if not all of life?
I grew up to be very left-brain focused and have learned to spend more time in right-braininess. You can too. It can make you happier and more in tune with what’s real.
Taylor, J. B. (2008). My stroke of insight. New York: Viking Press.
McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Schore, A. (1994). Affect regulation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schore, A. (1996). The experience-dependent maturation of a regulatory system in the orbital prefrontal cortex and the origin of development psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 59-87.
Schore, A. (2003a). Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York: Norton.
Schore, A. (2003b). Affect dysregulation and disorders of the self. New York: Norton.
Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Schore, A.N. (1997). Early organization of the nonlinear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 595-631.
Schore, A.N. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain. Attachment & Human Development, 2, 23-47.
Schore, A.N. (2001a). The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, 201-269.
Schore, A.N. (2001b). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, 7-66.
Siegel, D.J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.