11 April 2008

Right Brain/Left Brain

It's funny how sometimes you see something everywhere. Like when you buy a new car and you see other people driving it all over town. Previously, you never noticed that car, but once it is in your consciousness (and your garage) you become aware.

The same thing happens to me online. Over the past few days, I keep encountering articles and videos about right-brain/left-brain research.

(Briefly, the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for verbal, logical, sequential, mathematical, and detail-oriented functions. The left-brain seeks structure, order, and patterns. The right hemisphere of the brain is associated with simultaneous, imagistic, holistic, and intutive functions. The right-brain seeks out symbols and images.)

I first encountered Dr. Anne Adams, a scientist suffering from frontotemporal dementia, which is a brain disorder that changes the balance of activity between the frontal and posterior brain areas, resulting in "torrents of creativity." In 1986, she quit her job as a scientist to begin painting full time. This radical shift in careers was due to the disorder, which, at the time was still undiagnosed.

What fascinated me about her work is that much of it has a patchwork, quilterly feel. Although her disorder affected the activity levels of the frontal and posterior areas of her brain, I believe her work shows a strong left-brain tendency. Many of her paintings display patterns and strong internal structure.

One of her pieces, Unraveling Bolero, is a bar by bar analysis of Ravel's Bolero, that uses color, shape, and scale to visually interpret the underlying structure and order in Bolero. Fascinatingly, Ravel and Dr. Adams were both in the early stages of symptoms of frontotemporal dementia when they composed their works--Ravel's Bolero and Dr. Adams' visual response to it.

My next encounter was a talk given by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who was working at the Harvard Brain Bank when she suffered a stroke. Surgeons removed a golf ball size blood clot from her left hemisphere that was pressing upon the language centers of her brain.

Even as she was experiencing her stroke, she had the presence of mind to recognize the rich possibilities involved in a Harvard-trained brain scientist experiencing a stroke from the inside. Her talk is touching and funny and provides great insight into the different personalities, as she describes it, of the right and left hemispheres.

(I highly recommend watching this video. It is relatively long, clocking in at 18 minutes, but is worth it. I had encountered links to it before, but had never watched it because I don't have the patience to watch videos online. But after seeing it once, I want to watch it again.)

Finally, I encountered another blog post about the right/left brain phenomenon. Unfortunately, I can't find that link anymore, but I do have a link to something it linked to. (How's that for a confusing and ultimately uninformative reference?)

This article contains a dancing figure that is spinning. The direction of the spin is linked with your own brain's tendency toward right or left dominance. Go take a look at it and see which way it spins for you.

Most people are left-brained and they see the dancer spin counter-clockwise. Right-brained people see her spin clockwise. Supposedly, if you focus, you can get her to spin in the other direction, but I have never been able to do so.

I had read that article several months ago and she was spinning counter-clockwise. Try as I might, I couldn't get her to spin in the other direction. I wasn't surprised because throughout my life I know I have been strongly left-brain dominant. I was, however, a bit disappointed because I thought that my creative work might have shifted my dominance a bit.

It's funny how in my mind, at least, the right-brain is more attractive. I think it's because I am getting tired of the rule-based, factual, detail-oriented style I have used to control my life. Over the past year, I have begun to question my rules and assumptions about how to live.

Instead of rigidity, I am trying to be flexible. Instead of applying one-size fits all rules to everything, I look at each situation holistically and try to determine the best course of action. Instead of micro-planning each detail of my life, I have broad goals. Instead of controlling everything, I am just trying to be present in each moment.

Yesterday, I looked at the dancer again, and surprise, now she was spinning clockwise. And try as I might, I couldn't get her to spin in the other direction.

I'm of two minds about this. My left-brain is reading this as a finality and is screaming at me, saying "You're right brained now! You're right-brained now!" But my right-brain is saying, "Isn't that interesting? Your dominance changed over a couple months. I wonder if it will switch back. Probably. I bet it switches a lot more than you are even aware of."

I think I'll listen to my right-brain. Whatever my hemispheric dominance at the moment might be, I think I've found a set of guiding principles (rather than fact-based rules) for my life. Whether they are predominantly right or left brained doesn't matter. What matters is how I apply them in my life and whether they work or not.

(In a future entry, I'll write about my path as a quilter and how I think that relates to my hemispheric dominance.)


alice said...

Thanks for the link to the spinning dancer. My initial rotation was counter-clockwise, but I was able to reverse it with intense concentration. In other tests, I've always "diagnosed" myself as being fairly equal right/left brained.

Beryl said...

Somebody forwarded me an email with the spinning dancer and I found it intriguing because I could see her change and pivot on the opposite foot. My husband and I bothed watched her and while I could see her change direction, my husband insisted she was still spinning in the same direction. When he saw her back, I saw her front. Both of us looking at the same thing, yet seeing two different actions. Amazing how the brain works...