No matter what we’re thinking about, both hemispheres of our brain will always be involved. However, each hemisphere has its own characteristic mode of functioning. The left hemisphere uses what we’ll call “left mode” thinking, and the right hemisphere, “right mode” thinking. Both modes are equally necessary to the balanced operation of the upstairs brain. To understand how the two modes work together, it will be helpful to first understand how they’re different.
Left-mode thinking is logical, linear, linguistic (language-based), and literal. And, as you might guess, the left brain loves that these words all start with “L”. Left-mode thinking enables us to create categories that help us make sense of the incredibly complex world in which we live. In fact, it’s the left-mode's ability to analyze, predict, and control that, to a large extent, has helped us to produce the extraordinary technology that defines our modern civilization.
However, left-mode thought has difficulty dealing with the unpredictable, the immeasurable, and the unknown. It tends to interpret new things that happen in terms of past beliefs and assumptions, and finds it difficult to let in new information that contradicts what we’ve assumed to be true in the past.
While left-mode thinking uses language to create categories, the right-mode thinks more in images. It’s also informed by our emotions and our body sensations in a way that the more “heady” left-mode is not. While the left-mode pays attention to details, the right-mode sees the big picture all at once. When we use right-mode thinking, our minds tend to be more flexible – we’re open to new ways of seeing things and tend to think in “both/and” rather than “either/or” terms.
But if we’re dominated by right-mode thinking, we may tend to get lost in fantasy, imagining all kinds of wonderful possibilities, but lack the ability to stand back and plan how to rationally make them happen.
You might think that in contrast, when left-mode thinking dominates, we’d be good at making decisions.
And actually, the left-mode is very good at analyzing the details of a situation. However, without the emotional and sensory information which the the right brain provides, it can’t make decisions.
It tends to go back and forth, endlessly weighing
the pros and cons of various options. We need to be able to feel the emotional value of the different options, and to see them in a larger context before we can determine which choice is the better one.
In fact, we need both right-mode and left-mode thought for all aspects of our lives. When the two modes are working harmoniously together, we can be in touch with our emotions and the emotions of others, and still maintain perspective without getting swept away by our feelings. We can make sensible, rational judgments based on a clear-headed analysis of the situation, while keeping the bigger picture in mind, taking into account what’s best for all involved. Ultimately, an integration of left and right-mode thought increases our ability to be both reasonable and compassionate, and can even lead to a dramatic improvement in our physical health.
Dr. Les Fehmi, in his book Open Focus Brain, tells the story
of a client who, after just a few months of brain training, was able to
reverse the negative effects that a left-right imbalance had been having on her physical
and emotional health.
Paula, as he calls her in the book, was a nurse who worked round-the-clock shifts in the high-stress environment of an ICU in a major medical center. When she first went to Dr. Fehmi for treatment, she was having many troubling symptoms, including “bouts of [severe] anxiety, frequent and debilitating headaches, constant stomach pains, endometriosis, mild depression, and insomnia.” She wasn’t interested in taking medications that would just “mask her symptoms” and so she decided to try the kind of brain training that Dr. Fehmi had been teaching.
Fehmi identified her primary problem as relying too heavily on a particular way of relating to the world which he characterized as “a narrow objective attention style” – a style associated with the left hemisphere. This attention style in itself is not necessarily problematic – in fact, it is very useful in nursing where a small mistake can have life-threatening consequences.
However, the tendency of left-mode thinking to get overly caught up in details can make things more difficult. You know how when you’re stressed out, the least little thing that goes wrong can practically send you over the edge? This results from being focused so narrowly that you lose perspective, making it easy for any little difficulty or mishap to feel like major catastrophe.
This kind of tense, narrow focus can make a simple mishap seem like a catastrophe, and we lose sight of anything else.
Over the course of several weeks, Fehmi taught Paula a different way of relating – an attention style which he calls “open focus.” He simply taught her to broaden her focus instead of, as he put it, “gripping the world” with her attention.
“Open Focus” attention involves more than just a shift toward greater
right-mode functioning. It’s about developing the flexibility to choose
the style of attention that is most appropriate to the situation we’re
in. As Fehmi described it, Paula learned she could “narrow her focus
and respond alertly when she needed to,” but she could just as easily
soften and widen her attention in order to avoid accumulating stress. In
other words, she learned to use left-mode and right-mode functioning in
a more balanced way.
If we look at this in terms of the wheel of awareness metaphor, Paula was learning to sit at the hub of the wheel instead of being narrowly focused on a particular point on the rim. Seated at the center, she was able to widen her focus and was free to choose what parts of the rim she wished to attend to. In brain language, Paula was exercising her MPFC, helping it to become stronger and more skillful.
We can also maintain an awareness of life and world beyond the mishap, and can easily choose to shift our attention to other points on the wheel.
And what was the result of this training? Fehmi wrote that Paula noticed “the sometimes manic speed of her inner dialog… slowed considerably. Muscles she had unwittingly been holding tense for years began to relax. Her face, eye, throat, shoulder, and neck muscles in particular began to soften; for these are all muscles that support gripping the world with narrow-objective attention. Color returned to her face. Tension headaches became rare, and her migraines were virtually eliminated. Chronic pain from a spastic colon and endometriosis all but vanished. Her personality softened. After several sessions she described herself as much more at ease and centered. ‘I can’t believe how my life has changed,’ she said after a few months. ‘Every single thing in my life was affected for the better.’”
And that’s one of the wonderful things about training your brain:
The more you practice
the more you develop your MPFC,
the more integrated your brain becomes,
and the more it can change everything in your life for the better.