“[T]hey could purposely choose to step to the right of their left hemispheres and find this peace. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be, what a stroke of insight this could be to how we live our lives.” Jill Bolte Taylor.
Inside our skulls, two interpretations of the world mix and mingle. In many ways, our hemispheres almost couldn’t be more different from one another — at least in the way they process and decipher the data about the world that is constantly streaming in. For most westerners, we tend towards the left where logic and reason come to play. As lefties, we analyze and categorize data and make logical conclusions based on rationale. We discern differences. We make judgements. The circuitry here is what allows us to figure out what we should wear if it’s going to be raining and 54º in the morning, if we’ve got enough gas to make it to work, and exactly how bad the route is that the GPS is suggesting. The left hemisphere is really concerned with surviving and time — anticipating the future based on experiences of the past. It is generally rational and discriminating but can quickly generate multiple game plans if it senses trouble.
Our culture is left biased. “We need more engineers, scientists, and mathematicians.” The political types say. There is a need more people to explain the world, to pick it apart, to take what we know and add to it so that we know more. We evaluate ourselves against others around us, concluding which of our parts are relatively beautiful and which ought to be altered.
Now, of course we need our left hemispheres — we need to nourish them and to have them thrive. These lobes are not as sinister as I have made them out to be. All of the modern conveniences and technologies and burger recipes exist specifically because of the capabilities of hundreds and thousands of left hemispheres developing logical solutions to real world problems. From the alarm clock running as software on your smartphone to your microwave that heats up your breakfast pastry, to the reports that you have to read at work, to the television that gives you your daily dose of real housewives, the left hemisphere is where its at. Your ability to even read these words depends on the language centers nestled away so I’m clearly happy that you’ve brought your left leaning side with you.
My bias was towards the left hemisphere, too. For the majority of my life, logic and categorization and judgement were the foundations of my experience. Everything had to make sense; I prided myself on my insistence on rationale. There’s a story that says I would routinely leave the dryer door open after unloading it despite my wife’s demands to the contrary until she eventually convinced me with the appropriate rationale. Even matters of faith — by definition, these exist outside the realm of certainty — had to be tested and tried against a barrage of my own logic.
The mystery sensations occurred several times over the course of about four months. Sitting in my sister-in-law’s car outside a Toronto Tim Horton’s was the first time I remember an experience. Sitting in the back seat, I remember looking out across the parking lot while my wife and her sister reminisced in the front seat. My heart raced; I couldn’t focus on anything other than the palpitations. I remember lightly clenching my teeth not knowing what was about to happen.
Months later, I learned that these experiences were panic attacks. The meaning that I once had drawn from my career had ceased to be and my current living situation found me hours away from my few but close friends. With the support of my wife and the insight of some great therapists, the anxiety — and the attacks — are memories. They remind me of exactly what the left hemisphere can do when it is allowed to run wild and free.
My experiences were maladaptive and even diagnosable. Still, my left hemisphere was doing exactly what it has been wired to do. It evaluated the nuances of my situation. It accounted for my lack of meaning in my career, my isolation from my friends, my confusion, my discouragement, my lack of drive and it correctly determined that something needed to change. Diving in, it started to process all of the past and current information it had available to it, attempting to play out every scenario much like WOPR from War Games worked out every possible outcome in a game of Global Thermonuclear War.
The left hemisphere is to logic as the right hemisphere is to experience. Data from the body streams into the right hemisphere and represents all of the experience of the senses. It is the smell of a homecooked meal that reminds you of your grandmother’s house on Sundays. It’s the warmth of the sun radiating against your skin in spring. It is the sound of the waves ebbing and flowing along the seashore. There is not a sense of separateness, but a unity with creation and with others. As the right hemisphere processes this data it does so without attempting to place it in time. The present is the only concern — we cannot know the future or change the past, and the sun is warming my face right now. Why would I want to think about anything else? Beauty and possibility are the currency of the right hemisphere. It is not interested in how we are different from one another but how we are the same.
My appreciation of the right hemisphere is its grounding in the here and now. A right hemisphere that is fully activated results in a being that is fully aware. The sensations in our body become signals of what is currently happening rather than potential issues for which we must evaluate the need for concern. Instead, you can simply feel the breath entering and exiting the nostrils, the clothes against your skin, you chair against your thighs. The right hemisphere beckons you to enjoy that chocolate, that coffee, or that wine more slowly — to fully experience it rather than to simply consume. It causes you to pause and empathically sense the emotions that are betrayed on your partner’s face rather than to fix their issues or heal their pain. Pain, itself, is viewed as a reality and a source of strength and awareness.
Had I been more in tune with my right hemisphere, perhaps the myriad of game-ending scenarios worked out by my logic centers wouldn’t have had such a dramatic effect on my well being. Perhaps I would have been able to more thoroughly experience these dark days of the soul and appreciate them as opportunities for growth rather than as predictors as my inevitable demise.