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Right Brain / Left Brain
by Richard Stammler © Rich Stammler, 2009
Roger Sperry’s Innovative Brain Research
Ever since physiologist Roger Sperry’s creative research on the functions of the brain hemispheres, the concept of the right brain – left brain schism in brain function has come into the lexicon at all levels of scientific and creative discourse.1
It turns out that we have two brains. This morphology extends down the phylogenetic scale, but theoreticians are lacking an evolutionary reason for this common structure. Early assumptions that the two hemispheres are redundant has not been borne out and the two function, at times, as if they view the world through different metaphorical eyes. Significant clues about hemispheric brain function came out of brain injuries and pathology, particularly epilepsy.2 One thing that has been clear from modern brain research is that a particular variety of severe epileptic seizures spread from one brain hemisphere to the other.
Not only do these seizures spread from one hemisphere to the other, but many years ago neurologists theorized that if they could stop the spread of the misfiring to the second hemisphere, they could greatly mitigate the severity of the seizures. This surgery is called a corpus callosotomy, which splits the brains hemispheres by severing the corpus callosum, composed of 200 million or so connections between the two halves of the brain.3 This proved to be true and confining the seizures to one hemisphere of the brain made the epileptic events not nearly as debilitating and restored some semblance of normal life to those that had this radical surgery. At first it was thought that splitting the brain had little effect on brain function, but Roger Sperry did creative and extensive analysis on the separated hemispheres for which he won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1981.
The studies demonstrated that the left and right hemispheres are specialized in different tasks. The left side of the brain is normally specialized in taking care of the analytical and verbal tasks. The left side speaks much better than the right side, while the right half takes care of the space perception tasks and music, for example. The right hemisphere is involved when you are making a map or giving directions on how to get to your home from the bus station. The right hemisphere can only produce rudimentary words and phrases, but contributes emotional context to language. Without the help from the right hemisphere, you would be able to read the word "pig" for instance, but you wouldn't be able to imagine what it is. 4
Symbols, Metaphors and the Two Brains
This separation in the distinct approaches the two brains take in perceiving reality, quickly fit into a whole host of ancient dualities that play into the right and left metaphors.
Peter Russell, in his excellent work, The Brain Book5, drew on brain research and other evidence to provide a user’s manual for the brain. Among other practical techniques and a thorough literature review the book details cross-cultural associations with the spatial designation of left and right, indicating many parallels to modern research on brain hemispheric function.
This catalog of dualism in our reality is played out in much of the folklore and mythology that has been applied to the two brain hemispheres. Many in the transpersonal field have borrowed the far Eastern concept of polarity of the yin and yang. In this way of conceptualizing the dualism of the sexes, yang energy is considered to be a manifestation of the male energy; more aggressive, direct and unyielding, and, the other half of the duality is yin energy, female energy, which is mystical, global, inclusive, yielding.
The concept of the two brain hemispheres plays into this duality with the left brain considered to be yang, the right considered to be yin and many transpersonalists make a lot of this distinction. David Galin, professor of psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of California at San Francisco, succinctly summarized these findings in 1974. He indicated that the two cerebral hemispheres perform separate cognitive functions. When they are surgically disconnected, they operate, as he put it, as "two separate conscious minds in one head . . . they are different not duplicate minds because of their specialized functions."
Eminent scientist and neurosurgeon, Richard Bergland, wrote:
You have two brains: a left and a right. Modern brain scientists now know that your left brain is your verbal and rational brain; it thinks serially and reduces its thoughts to numbers, letters and words… Your right brain is your nonverbal and intuitive brain; it thinks in patterns, or pictures, composed of ‘whole things,’ and does not comprehend reductions, either numbers, letters, or words.8
A virtual deluge of books on brain hemispheres and their specialized functions has been written emphasizing one brain hemisphere over the other (or both working in harmony). An excellent example of this type of writing is one time Harvard professor, Betty Edwards, who taught a very innovative approach to drawing by making use of this concept. Her highly successful book is titled, Drawing on the right side of the Brain.9 She worked with Sperry to develop her ideas and, although some in the scientific community criticized her for implying brain function that was not validated by neuro-research, her book was a huge success.
C. G. Jung posited a classic duality, which is the concept of the male (animus) and female (anima) archetypes that each of us carries as part of our psyche. As indicated, many transpersonalists equate the left brain with male energy and the right brain with the female. As Jung remarked, we stand in peril if only one aspect of our psyche is in play in our daily lives.
When I have had an opportunity to dialogue with channels (people who have entities or the deceased speak through them) and ask them where in their head they perceive that the material is coming from, they will indicate somewhere on the right side of the brain (therefore, the right hemisphere). Furthermore, there is considerable, hotly debated research taking place that is looking for the locus of mystical experiences in the brain leading some neuro-researchers to claim they found it.10 Writers have dubbed this the “God spot” and some researchers to conclude that epilepsy that originates from this region causes mystical experiences. This has gone so far that some have speculated that the great mystics had their visions and mystical experiences because they suffered from this form of epilepsy.
Where is this “God spot” located? Yep, the right parietal lobe (right hemisphere).
Many clinical hypnotherapists use the symbolism of the side of the body that is affected by illnesses, accidents, and dreams to interpret the significance of the experience, providing clues as to the yin, the female nature that is in question, or yang, the male nature that is in question. Let me provide you an example from my personal experience.
Beating the Left Brain
Some time ago I was sent to San Diego by the government to attend a scientific forum. After the first day’s extensive series of briefings, I climbed into my rental car to leave the facility. I was wearing business attire with a sports jacket. I traveled the short distance to the entrance gate, which was operated by personal security cards passed through a scanner to activate the gate. The gate was actually composed of two parts, a wrought iron gate that swung across the path to the guardhouse from right to left and a vertical swing arm barrier that stood on the left next to the guard house. As I came to the gated exit, another car in front of me had just scanned his security card, which activated the gate. As he passed through the gate, I noticed a small sign which was not clear in its message expressing something about distance from preceding vehicles.
The swing gate opened and the vertical arm gate raised to let the vehicle out. I sat next to the card reader half thinking about the day’s presentations and waited for the wrought iron swing gate to close. After what seemed like a long time, when the gate did not close, I concluded that a sensor had been activated by my vehicle, which kept the gate open and my proceeding forward would activate the other vertical swing arm. I pulled forward next to where the wrought iron gate stood open and just behind the vertical arm, which did not open. My assumptionwas wrong. Before I had time for further reaction, the wrought iron gate decided it was time to close and proceeded to hit my rental car and as it tried to close, a clutch was momentarily overridden whereupon it decided to reactivate to the closed position. This resulted in its repeated bouncing off the rental vehicle. Incredulous, I sat frozen behind the steering wheel. If I attempted to move the vehicle it, would bounce down the length of the rental vehicle. Out of ideas, I climbed out of the vehicle and grabbed the gate to prevent it from bouncing off the car. So, picture this, I’m in my suit next to the rental car with this wrought iron gate pushing me against the car in a rhythmic motion.
One of the other conference participants drove up behind me. Since he was on his cell, I assumed he was calling security to rectify the situation. I pondered my situation as the gate suddenly stopped and remained open. I thought, “Great, now I can get away from this gate.” I jumped back into the rental car (the vertical gate still hadn’t opened). Before I was able to move the vehicle, the metal gate again attempted to close. I had no choice but to get back out and try to keep the gate from further damaging the car. This time my friend from the conference leaned out of his vehicle window and houted, “Do you want me to move your car?” I replied, “That is a good idea.” He pulled the vehicle back, I got in, and after talking with security on the intercom, the gate opened.
So what happened here? Being a transpersonal psychologist, I like to treat this like a dream to interpret it. The issue here is that I am in my left brain occupation and am slow to transition from it to my passion – transpersonal psychology – which is most decidedly right brain. In Jungian dream interpretation all aspects of the dream are a different part of your psyche. So it is a part of me that is the gate preventing from smoothly and easily transitioning to my new life path. Not only is the gate preventing my transition, but the damage is also to the right front of the vehicle – the damage is to the right side of the body or left brain. The symbols are all there. But it is not all that serious because the damage was localized (incredibly) to the right front hubcap, which I replaced with minimal cost and trouble.
Jill Bolte Taylor
This brings us to an unusual experience (to say the least), which at a subjective but significant level brings some startling material to light consistent with the discussion above. Jill Taylor:
I grew up to study the brain because I have a brother who has been diagnosed with a brain disorder: schizophrenia. And as a sister and later, as a scientist, I wanted to understand why is it that I can take my dreams, I can connect them to my reality, and I can make my dreams come true. What is it about my brother's brain and his schizophrenia that he cannot connect his dreams to a common and shared reality, so they instead become delusions? So I dedicated my career to research into the severe mental illnesses.11
As a neuro-researcher, Jill Bolte Taylor ultimately ended up at Harvard working for Dr. Francine Benes in the Harvard Department of Psychiatry studying the neural correlates in the brains of the mentally ill. She did this until one day she had an unusual experience, a stroke in the left parietal lobe of her brain. The account of this intelligent and articulate scientist of what happened is cogent and insightful. You will enjoy her contribution to the brain hemisphere dialogue going on in the scientific community. To hear it in her own words go to:
And you ask what would a transpersonal psychologist do with these events?
My premise would be, strongly left-brained individual – scientist in the neurological field – a safe bet. This left brained individual has an experience that totally opens up the right brain – because at the time of the stroke she had virtually no use of the left brain. Is this recapture of the right brain, life altering? Just listen to her.
Email me if you have questions.
2 Epilepsy: A seizure occurs when a burst of electrical impulses in the brain escape their normal limits. They spread to neighboring areas and create an uncontrolled storm of electrical activity. The electrical impulses can be transmitted to the muscles, causing twitches or convulsions.http://www.webmd.com/epilepsy/guide/epilepsy-causes
5 Russell, P. (1979). The Brain Book. New York: Penguin Books, USA Inc.
6 Remember the motor function of the right side of the body is controlled by the left brain and the left side by the right brain.
7 Ibid, p. 61.
8 From The Fabric of Mind, by the Penguin, Inc., New York 1985. pg.1.
9 Edwards, B. (1979). Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher. I used her book and found it to be an excellent way to help you greatly enhance drawing skills, which was her intent. Very well articulated and presented.
10 See, for example, Beauregard, M. & O’Leary, D. (2007). The Spiritual brain: a neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.