On Our Brains: We No Longer Need to Take a Side

Slide from The Divided Brain for Brain Sides post

My husband and I used to joke that together we had a complete brain. He was the scientist, a man of logical and rational thinking. I was the artist, habitual dweller in the land of reverie, seeker of mysteries and mysticism. We identified ourselves in this neatly dualist way, and neuroscience seemed to reflect our conclusions.

Betty Edwards’ book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain became a massive bestseller in the early 1980s. It popularized the idea that our brains are divided into right and left hemispheres and that each half is responsible for different and opposite functions.

Her book maintained that the right hemisphere was responsible for intuitive, impressionistic, dreamy, “feminine” functions while the left hemisphere was the more rational, here-and-now, “masculine” side of the brain.

This model replicated how my husband and I experienced the world. We perceived and evaluated situations differently. We used contrasting models to solve problems, and arrived at distinct conclusions and solutions. He relied on facts and proof; I inclined toward suppositions that questioned accepted knowledge. Cause and effect offered him clear answers. Cause and effect bored me. I liked to spin off possibilities. He liked B to always follow A. I liked to see what would happen if D followed A—and B disappeared completely! The majority of people we knew, as well as Western culture in general, shared my husband’s preferences. Some of our worst arguments resulted from the ways our apprehension of truth diverged.

Yin-Yang drawing for Brain Sides postOver the past decades, science has advanced our understanding of how the brain functions, and we can now say that any creative, thoughtful endeavor requires the use of our complete brain, the parts that order reality as well as the regions of emotion, memory, and ancestral wisdom. The ubiquitous yin-yang symbol above health food stores and yoga studios conveys the idea of opposition and interdependence within a container that comprises a whole.

Originating in China in the 3rd century BCE, the yin-yang symbol was an outgrowth of a philosophy and cosmology that saw all things existing as inseparable and contradictory. The two opposites, yin and yang, represented two opposing energies that attract and complement each other, neither pole being superior to the other. To achieve harmony in mind, body, spirit and in the greater world, the two elements must be in balance. When the two were out of balance, catastrophes such as floods, plagues, and other disasters could occur.

The balancing of yin and yang is a potent visual reminder of how differences can exist within wholeness. Looking deeply into the symbol, we can see our mind/brains as the outer circle and the black and white representing differing aspects contained within.

Dr. Iain McGilchrist for Brain Sides postThis symbology mirrors how the old reductive models of left brain/right brain have needed updating. According to more recent research, the two brain hemispheres have differences but don’t function as independently of each other as previously thought. They differ in size and shape and in the number of neurons and neural size. They differ in their sensitivity to hormones and pharmaceutical agents and other ways as well, but the most significant difference lies in the type of attention they give the world. The hemispheres house different sets of values and priorities. As he describes in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist, a research psychiatrist, believes that over time “there has been a relentless growth of self-consciousness (left brain) and a shift away from a reliance on right brain values (more interconnected, humane and holistic.) In the new 2019 edition, he chillingly writes:

“If I am right, the story of the Western world is one of increasing left brain hemisphere domination, we would not expect insight to be the keynote. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles toward the abyss.”

In a dialogue with Dr. Jonathan Rowson of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Dr. McGilchrist explained how the brain hemispheres function differently, though each is involved in everything we do. “For each hemisphere has a quite consistent, but radically different, ‘take’ on the world. This means that, at the core of our thinking about ourselves, the world and our relationship with it, there are two incompatible but necessary views that we need to try to combine. And things go badly wrong when we do not.” Note how similar this understanding is to the ancient Taoist cosmology of the necessary balance between yin and yang.

McGilchrist and others speak of how left-brain dominance over right-brain function has led the West to drift toward a reliance on abstract, de-contextualized thinking over a more intrinsic, fluid, reflexive thought process. As a contemporary example, we could say that our reliance on and false belief in algorithms to predict human behavior in industry, government, education, and science, and our institutionalization of metrics to assess accountability come at the expense of such human values as intuition and trustworthiness.

As humans, we may applaud ourselves for being a rational, thinking species, but growing scientific knowledge reveals us to be fundamentally a social species that needs and is molded by social interaction. Our behavior may, in fact, be based less on thought than on habit.

If McGilchrist and his colleagues are correct, their research has wide relevance for how we face the existential challenges of our time. Algorithms and abstract formulas predict the impact of climate change, yet too many of our leaders ignore the lived experience of hotter summers, wetter springs, and how quickly forests and coral reefs are disappearing. Teachers have testified about the recent phenomena of students’ inability to read human faces, pay attention, and empathize. And we are just beginning to see how cell phones, the Internet, and digital devices are adversely affecting our brains.

Dalai Lama and Richard Davidson for Brain Sides post

But good news comes from studies of brain plasticity. While unhealthy trends in society do not yet seem to have altered our brains in major structural ways, the question remains: can we, as a society, reverse the negative trends already in motion? The work of Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist I have mentioned in a previous blog, “‘Let It Go!’ More Than a Song Title, the Motto for Our Age,” offers hope and concrete ways to enhance well-being through meditations aimed at coping with difficult mind states such as depression, hyperactivity, or anxiety.

Dr. Davidson offers “mindfulness meditation” as an example in The Emotional Life of Your Brain:

“The term ‘mindfulness meditation’ refers to a form of meditation during which practitioners are instructed to pay attention, on purpose and non-judgmentally.  The process of learning to attend nonjudgmentally can gradually transform one’s emotional response to stimuli such that we can learn to simply observe our minds in response to stimuli that might provoke either negative or positive emotion without being swept up in these emotions.  This does not mean that our emotional intensity diminishes.  It simply means that our emotions do not perseverate.  If we encounter an unpleasant situation, we might experience a transient increase in negative emotions but they do not persist beyond the situation.”

Dr. V.S. Ramachandran (right) and psychology student Matthew Marradi and “mirror box” for Brain Sides post Another researcher, the psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, offers case histories of almost miraculous transformative cures of those afflicted with pain, cerebral palsy, phantom pain syndrome, and other brain-related maladies through the use of specific brain exercises. For instance, he describes the case in which Dr. V.S. Ramachandran successfully removed an amputee’s phantom pain by “rewiring his brain map” through the use of a “mirror box” that made the patient seem to see his phantom limb in the box before him. While the “cures” Dr. Doidge describes may be rare cases, brain plasticity is not a hoax. Moreover, this may indeed be a crucial time in the history of our species and our planet for us to embrace and consciously activate all aspects of our brains; most importantly, those previously untapped aspects that allow us to understand and access the transformative powers available within us.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”

 



“Let It Go!” More than a song title, the motto for our age

Girl with Balloon by Banksy for "Let It Go" blog post

How recently did a friend, family member, pastor or therapist advise you to “just let it go?”  It’s a phrase we hear often and suggests a strategic forgetting meant to clear our hearts and minds of purposeless thoughts, ruminations, obsessions, or the painful past.

In the old days, we might use the expressions “sweep things under the rug” or “bail out,” implying a passive escape from difficulties. But letting go is something different: an act of considered disengagement; a turning away from; a conscious erasure. It can mean anything from letting something alone by not interfering with it; letting a comment or disagreeable encounter pass; dropping an argument; leaving a relationship; putting an end to obsessive thoughts, or variations on any of these.

Why have we come to embrace the concept of “let it go?” One reason is that sensory overload has put us at risk. Our nervous systems are not adapted for and can’t reasonably respond to the daily and almost constant exposure to stressors. Medical science has warned for decades that stress makes us vulnerable to chronic disease. Infection, drought, and starvation affect large populations in the developing world, but in wealthy countries conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, adrenal fatigue, cancer, heart and autoimmune disease prevail. The evidence is not yet in on just how stress relates to these conditions, or how the emotional crises of worrying about a relationship might have different biological consequences than, say, living with famine. Not all stress results in the same afflictions, and some existential conditions such as living with natural disasters are not easily amenable to psychological intervention or techniques. However, the lucky among us can alter our internal and external environments enough to reduce the level of stress we experience.

Queen Else on Let It Go music for "Let It Go" blog postIt makes perfect sense that in our technologically advanced world, we have adopted the philosophy of letting go. Tellingly, in the Disney movie Frozen the song princess Elsa belts out with exactly that title has achieved massive popularity:

“Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on!
The cold never bothered me anyway.”

(From “Let It Go,” music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez)

The song is not just a catchy melody. It speaks to a wide audience of young girls and women hungry for images of female empowerment, self-acceptance, and resilience. Its message reaches beyond gender concerns. It celebrates the shedding/letting go of culturally defined roles and expresses the exhilaration of discovering one’s true self. Letting go in this sense is liberation from stereotypical norms, a revelation rather than an erasure.

Photo of Frank Hurley and Ernest Shackleton for "Let It Go" blog postBut wait! Letting it go hasn’t always been the model for handling difficult situations. Way back when, popular culture encouraged a stoic attitude exemplified by rugged individualism embodied by tough hombres. Legendary characters like Paul Bunyan or real figures like Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, or the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton depicted a heroic ideal. Their virtue lay in handling the unpredictable with a cool head and dispassionate heart. Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Gary Cooper and actors that resembled them reflected this mythic masculinity on screen.

American stoicism was not about letting it go, but rather about duking it out and winning. The idea was that character is built by a kind of gritty endurance, a soldiering on that meant one accepted what life offered, including the hardships and suffering. To be anything less was degrading, a basic weakness. The archetype was male and white, but tough dames like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford exhibited their own brand of true grit. Instead of “just let it go,” Americans embraced slogans like, “Buck up, cowboy.” Even in girls’ locker rooms posters declared: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

We now live in a different century. Not only have our expectations about the world altered, the planet itself and the societies on it are continually transforming. The rapidity of change we experience in our daily lives means that we face many more challenges to inner and outer stability. We live with a surfeit of stress. How do we cope? “Let it go” has become the motto for our times.

But letting go is not a process for sissies. It requires self-awareness, discernment, and the courage to face and acknowledge the difficulty at hand. Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist with an interest in meditation, neuroscience and the investigation of human emotions, offers some practical suggestions about how to “let go” on his helpful and informative website:

Monarch Butterfly sequence for "Let It Go" blog post“Step back from your situation, from whatever it is that you’re attached to, and try to hold it in a larger perspective. Get some distance from it, as if you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale and relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions truly present to have it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it simply out of your hands, so that your own striving – however well-intended, skillful, and honorable – just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or time to let it go. Be with these reflections – perhaps sitting quietly with a cup of tea, or in some place that is beautiful or sacred to you – and let their answers sink in.”

Neuroscientist Linda Graham’s book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, likewise addresses the brain’s ability to grow and change in response to experience. Moving from a negative to positive emotional state requires that we redirect our stress responses by consciously practicing ways to calm our over-stimulated brain. Dr. Graham draws on her twenty years of experience as a psychotherapist to offer a series of experiential exercises designed to build skills in “relational intelligence, somatic (body-based) intelligence, emotional intelligence, reflection and choosing options, and the deep wisdom of simply being.”

“Researchers have found that people who exhibit high degrees of response flexibility also exhibit high degrees of resilience. Flexibility in the neural circuitry of the prefrontal cortex allows them to vary their responses to life events depending on their judgment of what will work best now, not simply on what has worked before. Response flexibility is the essential neural platform from which we can choose to cope differently, more adaptively, and more resiliently. It is the neurobiological basis of resilience.”

Along similar lines, Dr. Richard Davidson, one of the world’s foremost researchers on brain plasticity, links the ability to let go of negative ideation as one of the key aspects of resilience. He identifies two parts of letting go: the physical and the mental and finds an interesting distinction in how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach letting go:

“In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) the emphasis is on changing negative or unhelpful beliefs, but in other approaches you don’t need to go so far. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, it’s enough to create this space in the way I’m describing here. In ACT the process is known as cognitive defusion.

Cognitive defusion is an aspect of acceptance, which just means letting go of internal struggle or resistance. This is acceptance in a positive sense, not just resignation – so for example, forgiveness is a kind of acceptance.”

Bust of Marcus Aurelius for "Let It Go" blog postLast, in researching this blog, I discovered a website called The Daily Stoic. Founded in Athens in the third century B.C., stoicism was a persuasive ancient Hellenistic philosophy whose most famous proponents were Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. One tenet of stoicism taught that self-control, reason, and fortitude could overcome destructive emotions. The Daily Stoic endeavors to make stoicism relevant to a modern audience and to serve “as a source of much-needed strength and stamina” during our difficult times. While modern stoicism may sound like the old “buck up” philosophy, it favors reliance on reason and self-control, which includes making choices (and letting go of unproductive attitudes) about how to attain a happier life.

To live in the twenty-first century is to live with a lot of noise, both inner and outer. Luckily, our minds are hospitable places that can grow and adapt to changing circumstances. But like all sentient beings, our physical resources are limited. When beset by the “too muchness” of life, we don’t have to choose between knuckling through or letting go. Knowledge is our friend, and flexibility may prove to be our most important skill.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”