Self-Aware of Our Split-Hemisphere Brains – Part II

This thing about humans evolving into beings with two separate brain hemispheres charged with functioning in completely different, yet collaborative ways holds a special fascination for me.  About a year ago, a colleague at work introduced me to an author who makes the bold claim that right-brain dominant people “will rule the future.” In this post, I will use the book to delve once again into our split-brain reality.

The author is Daniel H. Pink and the book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future. Pink begins the book by reminding us of the awesome nature of our human brain, with its some 100 billion cells and an elaborate network of connections that allows us to breathe, eat, talk, and move about. He notes that historically – even as far back as Hippocrates – the left brain hemisphere has been praised (mostly by men) as what makes us human with its rational, analytic and logical functions. The right side of the brain, operating  in a nonlinear and intuitive way, was thought to be left over from some earlier stage in human development and no longer needed.

In the 1800’s, scientists learned that it is the left side of the brain that controls the ability to speak and to understand language. Since language is considered primary to what separates humans from other mammals, this finding added to the prominence given the left brain.

In the 1950’s, however, all that began to change through studies of the unlucky persons who underwent brain surgery in an attempt to cure seizures. Roger W. Sperry conducted research on these patients, whose right and left brain hemispheres had been separated through the surgery. He determined that the right side of the brain was not inferior, just different in the way it processed information. This was the beginning of a whole new recognition that humans are, as Pink notes, “of two minds.”

Sperry’s discovery was later popularized by an art instructor, Betty Edward, who in 1979 first published Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  It was probably in the mid-1980’s that I was first exposed to this book through a retreat director who also was an artist. She encouraged those of us on the retreat to explore our spiritual depths through connecting with our right brain, and freestyle drawing.

Finally, Pink notes four key differences between the brain hemispheres and their functions. He lists them as:

  • Body control – the left brain controls the right side of our body; the right brain controls the left;
  • Interpretation – the left brain thinks sequentially; the right brain simultaneously;
  • Understanding – the left brain hears text (what is said); the right brain hears context (how it is said);
  • Perspective – the left brain specializes in detail; the right brain in the big picture.

Working together, as they do for example when we walk, both halves of our brain combine their specialties to help us successfully navigate life.

Pink’s book is meant to help individuals use their whole brains to pilot our personal and professional lives through the transition to a new age, which he calls, “The Conceptual Age.” According to Pink, this is the fourth new age through which humans have passed in the evolution of our societies, technologies and means of labor. The first three are the agricultural age, the industrial age, and the information age (yes, if you have just caught up with that one, we are passed it now). Pink also suggests that the introduction of each of these ages resulted in three things: 1) people got richer; 2) technology got better; 3) globalization grew further.

Furthermore, as Pink also notes, to create a thriving, just society, we need it to be made up of both people who are strong in their left-brain functioning (lawyers, accountants, engineers) as well as people who are stronger in their right-brain functioning (inventors, entertainers, artists, counselors). Pink argues, however, that up until the 21st century and the dawning of the new conceptual age, it has been the need for and affirmation of left-brain thinking that primarily has driven our societies. The aptitudes associated with right-brain thinking have been put off to the side.  Pink claims, though, that that is now changing as a result of a number of forces. Among these are the relative abundance enjoyed by some societies on the planet, the globalization of the marketplace, and advances in technology. He offers six right-brain aptitudes that need to be joined with the left-brain focus of the past:

  • design as well as function;
  • story as well as argument
  • symphony as well as focus;
  • empathy as well as logic;
  • play as well as seriousness, and
  • meaning as well as accumulation.

What interested me most in this list, were his comments on the importance of story and meaning in the emerging age which he describes as dominated by “art and heart.”

First, let us look at his comments on the importance of story. Pink notes that learning something in the context of a story means we will more likely remember it. That is not a difficult one to grasp. After all, how many of us recall all those dates we were forced to memorize in our high school world history course? We’re much more likely to remember history through the stories (mostly told in our day through blockbuster films).

Pink says this about stories: “Stories are easier to remember – because in so many ways, stories are how we remember.” Our brains record our experiences and organize them into patterns of relationship. Stories also help us remember because they not only give us the facts, but tie those facts to an emotional impact.  Pink illustrates this with an observation by E.M. Forster that contrasts a statement of fact: “The queen died and the king died”; with a story: “The queen died and the king died of a broken heart.”

Pink goes on to talk about how businesses today are using story to capture and convey information. He also points to the popular movement here in the U.S. of “scrapbooking” as meeting a need for a personal narrative.

This last point brings me to the story that forms the backdrop for this blog: “The New Universe Story,” as told by the Passionist priest Thomas Berry and the physicist Brian Swimme, and others.

This story of our common origins in the evolution of our Universe not only offers us an awesome and magnificent tale of our coming into being, but it also meets another of the aptitudes identified by Pink, that of meaning.  Pink notes that all humans seem to possess a hunger for “a deeper understanding of how we fit in and why that matters” (115).

My own introduction to the story of our Universe provided a profound affirmation of my spiritual experience. And Pink, surprisingly for what is most often described as a “business book,” offers two places to start in our search for meaning. One is “start taking spirituality seriously.” The second is to “start taking happiness seriously.”

Pink defines spirituality the same way I do in this blog, as “concern for the meaning and purpose of life.”  He suggests, as I have argued, that it is “a fundamental part of the human condition.” In fact, Pink notes that our human brains appear to be wired for this activity, and that this wiring seems to run through the right half of our brain. Recent brain research supports this (and see also Jill Bolte Taylor’s story of her stroke, which dismantled the left side of her brain). It indicates that the right half of our brain is the locus of “spiritual and mystical thoughts and experiences.” For me, this indication does not reduce spiritual experience to a function of our brains, but rather indicates that our brains have evolved a capacity to connect to the larger reality of which we are a part – perhaps because, particularly at this crucial moment in human and evolutionary history, we seriously need it.

Next week, I’ll delve into Pink’s fascinating comments on the connection between our right brain and happiness. For now, I’ll leave you with the link to a short assessment recommended by Pink for measuring the qualities and aptitudes for meaning:

Pink, D. (2006). A whole new mind: Why right-brainers will rule the future. New York, NY: Riverhead.

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