Saturday, March 19, 2011

We all use both

When I first heard about "right brain", I wanted to be there.  I thought living in my right brain would make me more creative.  (I even use 'rightbrain' as my login some places.)  Now I learn that we all use our right brain all the time, so I started to consider the issue in a different light.

If we all use both, what determines the balance, and what affects the balance?  Master and Emissary has a very compelling description, which I will try to summarize in the next few posts.  First, let's consider some perhaps counter-intuitive implications of the divide.

Are novelists and playwrights writing from their left or right brains?  The written medium is all words, which would seem to be the province of the left brain.  Furthermore, the works (novels and plays) are linear, and linearity is the hallmark of the left brain.  The answer is that they use both in exquisite cooperation.  The best novels and plays are about grounded reality, which only the right brain can provide.  They evoke images in the reader's mind, and only the right brain can construct those images in words.  They employ metaphor, which only the right brain understands.  They offer humor, which is primarily a right brain function.  The left brain works with the right to linearize the story and put it into words on paper.

When we read a novel or see a play, we are also using both brains.  The left occupies itself with the words, leaving the right brain to immerse itself in the story.  The right brain understands language, but in a different way than than the left.  Language understanding in the left hemisphere is concentrated in Wernicke's area, which unpacks language in a manner similar to how the left hemisphere Broca's area packs it into speech.  Language understanding in the right hemisphere is more diffuse, connected more to meaning than syntax.  It is the simultaneous understandings of the left and right hemispheres that creates the rich and fulfilling response to a well written novel or play.

Non-fiction writing can have a different balance.  Telling a true story can be as evocative and compelling as any novel or play and the effect will be as balanced as they are.  However, much non-fiction writing concerns itself with how the world is constructed, and this appeals more to the left brain.  Some non-fiction writing is really communication of left brain re-presentations from the writer to the reader, in which case the right brain is hardly involved.  Most people find such writings hard to read.

Poetry can bypass the left brain entirely.  Most poetry offers some balance to the left and right brains, but the preponderance of metaphor leaves the right brain somewhat confused.  Some poetry offers no meaning to the left brain, in which case the left brain either shuts down or panics.  The right brain doesn't demand meaning, so it is free to rest in the shape and evocation of such poetry.  How we feel about a poem often depends on the ability of our left brain to disengage rather than rebel.

Creating and appreciating a piece of artistic pottery can also bypass the left brain.  Creation requires only the free flow of expression from the right brain to the hands, and appreciation is often just as pure.  But the picture is not so simple as it might seem.  The best pottery involves a bit of invention, and that is done with the right-left-right paradigm, often in a series of "failures" that are destroyed before the end result is ever seen.  So even the most pure artistic achievements are usually the result of the collaboration.

I write software for a living.  This last year I wrote a CAD system that ran to many tens of thousands of lines of code.  I carefully paid attention to the work in order to understand my own creative process.  I couldn't keep track of all the individual pieces of the project, but I never lost my overall understanding.  My head would ache while I puzzled some difficult problem, which I interpreted as my left brain being unable to cope.  At such times I would often take a break or go home, and most of the time when I got back, I would have a solution.  I interpreted that as my right brain working on the problem without my conscious involvement.  Left brains, including mine, are only capable of handling a limited amount of complexity.  Right brains have no such limitation.  Even engineering can involve high levels of coordinated activity between the hemispheres.

In fact, just about every creative act involves substantial involvement from both our brains.  Sometimes we just don't admit it.  How we see our brains working together can influence how we treat ourselves.  More importantly, it can affect how we treat others.  If we see our own success as a result of our left-brain analytic abilities, we will encourage and reward others based on our perceptions of their analytic abilities, and we will teach them only analytic skills.  If we see our own success as a result of our right-brain reasoning skills, we will encourage and reward others based on our perceptions of their reasoning abilities, and we will teach them only reasoning skills.  All of us need both, and our prejudices and misunderstandings on this issue can determine the future, as we will see in the next post.

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