The popular view of the left and right brain is that the left brain is the realm of logic, language and the ‘rational’ mind, whereas the right brain is the realm of emotion and creativity; that we are either left or right brain people; good at one thing or another. Although there are elements of truth to this, these concepts are actually quite misleading.
Both sides of the brain communicate with each other all the time and both are involved in many of the same processes, however they each do this in their own way. To understand the contribution that each hemisphere makes, one must look at ‘how’ they do what they do, rather than ‘what’ they do. Funnily enough, when we consider the differences between the right and left brain, the ‘howness’ is the realm of the right brain, and the ‘whatness’ the realm of the left brain; this is very telling.
The differences between the right and left hemispheres of the brain begin with attention. Attention is a product of consciousness and when attention flows through the right brain, the attention is an open, receptive, vigilant, broad outward attention. When attention flows through the left brain it yields a narrow, directed, focused, inward attention. By outward I mean ‘in relation to others and in context,’ and by inward I mean ‘in relation to what is already known,’ conceptualised and isolated from context. Whereas the right brain is open to what is new, the left brain does not recognise ‘newness;’ instead it can only see what is familiar, and categorise the information in relation to what it already knows. The attention is automatically drawn to what is known, and cannot see the rest.
Whereas the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, the left hemisphere sees broken parts, abstracted from context, and then re- constructs these parts into a whole of its own making, based on what it already ‘knows.’ Both of these processes are necessary and we use both constantly, but the differences are profound.
The left hemisphere sees the world in relation to itself, what it needs, what it wants to get, and in relation to its own ideas. The right hemisphere sees itself as part of a whole, in relation to others, the community and the Earth. The right hemisphere sees the wholeness of things and the connections between them, whereas the left hemisphere simply sees the ‘things.’
Iain McGilchrist, former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital, London, explains this using the example of a bird. Birds use their left eye (right hemisphere) to survey the environment. With the left eye they are on the look out with broad, vigilant, receptive attention for potential friends or foe. They connect with their )ock, including their offspring, through their left eye, and when confronted with something new, or potentially dangerous, the attention that they give to the world is through their right hemisphere. However, they narrow in on a seed on the ground with their right eye (left hemisphere) and this left hemisphere takes on the role of differentiating that seed from all the sand and rock on the ground. Where the left hemisphere focuses on collecting and categorising between make and model, social bonding and empathy are the realm of the right hemisphere. People with right hemisphere damage don’t recognise facial expressions, and can’t read the messages of emotion from looking in a person’s eyes. They also focus on the parts, but can’t turn the parts into a ‘whole.’ People with left hemisphere damage have no difficulty seeing the whole, but miss the details.
By keeping the two hemispheres, and their roles, separate, the individual ensures that when they are focused on something, their attention is still available to attend to something new that comes into their environment. The divided attention keeps us from either getting lost in the details, or lost in the ‘whole.’ Of note, however, is that the right hemisphere is actually pretty good at taking on the role of the left hemisphere, if required to do so, whereas the left hemisphere is wired ‘internally,’ sorting information within what it already knows, within the left brain.
The ability of the attention to be ‘divided’ is a quality of right hemisphere attention. The right hemisphere has connections ‘all over the place,’ which makes sense given its holistic perception, and it is here where we derive meaning from experience. It turns out that the right hemisphere is responsible for every kind of attention except focused attention. This includes alertness, vigilance (intensity), divided attention and sustained attention, so when we talk about the focused attention of the left hemisphere, we don’t mean focused in the sense of sustained focused attention. Sustained focused attention requires the active participation of the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere actually drops information into categories automatically, because it isn’t looking at information in the broader context of meaning. It re-cognises a characteristic and immediately drops it into a category that it already knows. So by looking at details, it isn’t actually looking at subtleties; that requires sustained attention…the realm of the right hemisphere.
Iain McGilchrist describes it like this:
“Different aspects of the world come into being through the interaction of our brains with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, and precisely which aspects come into being depends on the nature of our attention. It might turn out that for some purposes, those that involve making use of the world and manipulating it for our benefit, we need to know what is of use to us – but this might be very different from understanding in a broader sense, and certainly might require filtering out some aspects of experience. Without experiencing what it is, we would have nothing on which to ground our knowledge, so we have to experience it at some stage (right hemisphere); but in order to know it, we have to ‘process’ experience. We have to be able to recognise (‘re-cognise’) what we experience: to say this is a ‘such-and-such,’ that is, it has certain qualities that enable me to place it in a category of things that I have experienced before and about which I have certain beliefs and feelings (left hemisphere). This processing eventually becomes so automatic that we do not so much experience the world as experience our representation of the world. The world is no longer ‘present’ to us, but ‘re- presented,’ a virtual world, a copy that exists in conceptual form in the mind.
Much of our capacity to ‘use’ the world depends, not on an attempt to open ourselves as much as possible to apprehending whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, but instead in apprehending whatever I have brought into being for myself, my representation of it. This is the remit of the left hemisphere, and would appear to require a selective, highly focused attention.”
This brings us to problem solving, an area that, in the popular view of hemisphere roles, falls into the realm of those logical left brain thinkers, but it turns out that this just isn’t the case. The right brain, through its open, receptive, broad outward attention sees many possible solutions, and with its sustained attention is able to hold these many possible solutions ‘alive’ while alternatives are explored. On the other hand, the left hemisphere hones in on a single solution that ‘best fits’ with what is already known, and settles on that. The tendency of the left hemisphere is to ‘deny discrepancies,’ while the right hemisphere has a longer ‘working memory’ and is able to both access more information and hold it together in the mind for longer periods of time.
As Iain McGilchrist says, “The left hemisphere operates focally, suppressing meanings that are not currently relevant. By contrast, the right hemisphere processes information in a non-focal manner with widespread activation of related meanings…the more flexible style of the right hemisphere is evidenced not just in its own preferences, but also at the ‘meta’ level, in the fact that it can also use the left hemisphere’s preferred style, whereas the left hemisphere cannot use the right hemisphere’s. For example, although the left hemisphere gains more benefit from a single strong association than several weaker associations, only the right hemisphere can use either equally.”
The right hemisphere attends to the world as a whole, delivers the information to the left hemisphere to categorise and label based with what is already known, and then the right hemisphere openly, receptively attends to meaning, shifting easily between both the right and left hemisphere preferred methods of processing.
The right hemisphere attends to the whole, delivers the information to the left hemisphere to categorise and label based on what is already known, and the left brain latches onto an solution, denying discrepancies between what is observed and the solution that it has latched onto. The emissary comes to believe that it is the master, and our perception of the world becomes limited, lacking in creativity, and lacking in meaning.
In the realm of science, new ideas come from right hemisphere dominant, creative, open thinkers (Einstein), and dogmatic science comes from left hemisphere dominant, linear, reductionist thinkers who focus on categorising details, to the exclusion of the whole. In addition, left hemisphere dominance leads to lack of connection to the outside world, and to lack of empathy for others; essentially it is blind to consequences.
When we consider Darwin, with his ‘heart of stone’ and his inability for much of his career to recognise cooperation in nature, and the effect of the environment on life, we can see how left hemisphere dominance affects the outcome of scientific enquiry. The left hemisphere plays a vital role; one that we all need and use all the time, but if we stop there and don’t shift back to right hemisphere holistic thinking, where we seek meaning, then meaning is lost.
Another way of looking at it is that the left hemisphere recognises sameness, and the right hemisphere recognises individuals, and then symbolically connects individuals within the wider context of meaning; physical and mental, life experience, cultural, and even literature and art. A rose is the sum of its parts for the left hemisphere; a rose is a symbolic landscape for the right hemisphere, that encompasses many layers of meaning. A mountain is a resource for the left hemisphere, made of minerals and other commodities, such as forests and water. A mountain is a metaphor for the right hemisphere of a potentially endless exploration of meaning; beauty, majesty, eco-systems, spirituality and more.
The right hemisphere is drawn to uniqueness and has a preference for what actually exists. The left hemisphere is drawn to sameness, and has a preference for abstraction, wrestling things from their context so as to fit them into a re-formed ‘world view’ of its own creation.
From early childhood, the educational system cuts the world up into pieces and asks us to process and memorise these pieces, without considering the whole. Our ability to memorise and regurgitate ‘facts’ is highly regarded, whereas exploring the connections between areas of study is not, and viewing information ‘anew’ and being open to one’s own understanding of information is definitely not. We are told what the correct answer is, and knowledge is built, step by step, on the ‘correct’ answers that we have been given. Only advanced study, at PhD level and beyond, allows for original thinking, and even then our thinking processes must be approved by the professor or employer who supervises us. If we are lucky enough to have a professor or supervisor that is open to new ideas, then we may have a mentor that supports originality of thought. If we have a professor who is predominantly working from the left hemisphere, originality will automatically be dismissed and we had better ‘shape up’ and present information in a form that he/she recognises, or we won’t graduate.
This reality is played out all around us in the modern world. When we look at politics, we see each party presenting its policies in ‘sound-bytes,’ linear bite-size concepts (pro-this, or anti-that) completely removed from context, let alone connected to an overview of the day to day reality of life. Listen to the BBC or Fox News, and one would think that there are only about four or five events happening in the world at one time, and these same four or five stories are repeated every fifteen minutes or so.
But it is in the realm of emotion and personal relationships where left hemisphere dominance most dramatically affects our lives. There are two reasons for this; first, the left hemisphere is focused on the ‘self’ and not others; second, the left hemisphere categorises experience based on what it already knows, rather than being open to experience as it actually is.
The left hemisphere works with selected memory of past experience, whereas the right hemisphere is attuned to that which is new, unique and in the real world. So when someone says or does something, and it ‘pushes our buttons,’ the buttons they are pushing are our left hemisphere memory of experience, that has already categorised what that person just said or did. The left hemisphere isn’t looking for the meaning behind what that person has said or done…it already knows.
What’s more, the right hemisphere “is involved in inhibiting the automatic tendency to espouse one’s own point of view,” (McGilchrist), so a left hemisphere dominant person isn’t going to be receptive to the other person’s attempt to explain what they really mean.
One can easily see how significantly this would affect one’s ability to build a healthy relationship; but this tendency also has a significant effect on our ability to become effective activists, therapists or co-creators. If we already ‘know’ what is ‘wrong’ with a person, as some people are prone to believe, it is unlikely we will be open to creatively exploring another person’s living reality.
This brings us to a very important insight that Iain McGilchrist discusses in-depth in his master tome, ‘The Master and His Emissary,’ and that is the extreme extent to which the left hemisphere is confident in what it knows. Whereas the right hemisphere is always questioning and reassessing and looking for new connections, the left hemisphere latches onto information, categories it in a flash, and is supremely confident in its classification. Once the left hemisphere has categorised something, then the ‘buck stops there.’ This can have profound implications for personal growth. We cannot grow if we cannot step out of what we think we already know.
The left hemisphere is actually the smallest box that consciousness can find itself in, and when this is played out in our relationships, in our learning, in our perception of the world that we exist in, then we live in a ‘re-constructed’ abstract self-oriented world, divorced from context and meaning…that we are supremely confident in.
On the other hand, when the right hemisphere is dominant, we live in world in which self and other are not only of equal value, but we can also see the connections between ourselves and others, and between action and reaction, thus our perceptions are informed by context and meaning. Further, we remain open and receptive to new information, comfortably question our ideas and beliefs, and are willing to change our minds when we recognised discrepancies between what we ‘know’ or ‘want,’ and what ‘is.’
In closing, I would like to point out how essential right hemisphere processing is when it comes to healing trauma. When we are locked in trauma from past experience, we live through the ‘now’ based on what has come before. Responses can be uncontrollable as we react to current events with automatic reliving of past experiences; at times consciousnessly, but often unconsciously as well. Much of trauma counselling is focused on releasing the past by reliving it in a safe environment where one can process life experience with attention to meaning. Supporting counselling with methods to increase right hemisphere processing can be invaluable to this healing process.
Where the left hemisphere can function on very minimal nutrition including junk food, processed food, canned food, etc, the right hemisphere requires nutrient dense ‘living’ food, such as uncooked fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Further, when we looked at the bio-frequency of food, animal products, junk food and processed food have a very low frequency, and fresh fruits, vegetables and greens have a higher frequency. The right hemisphere of the brain actually resonates with higher frequencies.
Other forms of plant medicine can also play an important role in increasing right hemisphere processing. For example, some essential oils are known to increase right hemisphere processing, such as Galbanum, Angelica, Helichrysum Italicum, Pettigrain, Grapefruit, Hyssop, Rose of Sharon and Frankincense. Culinary and medicinal herbs, especially when fresh, are, aside from their nutritional and medicinal properties, typically a higher frequency too.
Meditation is a practice that is well known to increase right hemisphere processing, as are sensory experiences and dance. When we allow our bodies to move in response to the music, instead of dancing to the music, it activates the right hemisphere of the brain as the movements are ‘new’ instead of being ‘routine’ or predictable.
Time in nature also offers tremendous support for those wishing to increase right hemisphere processing. When in nature, our brain observes organic shapes, we breathe in volatile oils released from plants, and our parasympathetic nervous system is activated. Further, when we look ‘up’ at the sky or trees overhead, it activates the right hemisphere of the brain. Take some time to lie on the grass and observe the clouds or stars above!
It is important to note that when working at the computer or on our mobile phone, we are looking down for extended periods of time, which on a societal level may be having a significant impact on our increasing tendency to left hemisphere processing. Take time each day to look ‘up’ and to look far; encompassing the whole of this beautiful world that we are so privileged to live in.
Impatiens Flower Essence offers gentleness and the ability to patiently and cooperatively work with others. Its understanding and tolerance for the differences between how people learn and process experience, combined with their gentle nature, represents the ideal temperament of the Teacher, who is relaxed and respectful of those who know less, are slower or less capable than themselves. The Impatiens allows time to expand, to allow things to be done properly, so that life can be appreciated in the moment rather than always rushing to the ‘next thing’ that needs to be done. Impatiens also offers the ability to forgive oneself and others for not living up to idealised expectations.
Essential oils to support Impatiens:
Sandalwood, Helichrysum, Ylang Ylang, Chamomile Roman, Benzoin
Vervain is very much a part of the world and lives in relation to others. They are centred in the here and now and, in their positive expression, enjoy perceiving the broader picture from a calm position. In touch with their inner wisdom, they are confident in what they experience and intuit. They are tolerant of those who perceive life from a different perspective, remaining open to the possibility of another person shedding light on their own level of understanding. Vervain is committed to accomplishing things in the world and has high ideals fuelled by inspiration, yet realise that ideals must be approached day by day as a progressive evolution and relaxed consistent effort is more effective in the long run than living in a pressure cooker. The Vervain person embodies the ability to inspire others through passion mingled with kindness. They lead others through their ability to inspire rather than through domination.
Essential oils to support Vervain:
Rose Maroc, Galbanham, Cypress, Pine, Myrrh, Valerian, Vetiver, Rose Otto, Hyacinth, Linden Blossom, Spruce, Narcissus
For those who respond to injustice with strong emotions, such as anger and hatred, jealousy and envy; a heart closed to giving and receiving love. In the positive expression, Holly embodies the gifts of love and compassion. They are uplifted by the success and happiness of others and feel a sense of unity and harmony with the world. They have a deep understanding of human emotions and recognise that all people, with all points of view, play a valuable role in the ‘bigger picture’ of human experience. They feel and express gratitude towards others and the gift of life.
Essential oils to support Holly:
Chamomile Roman, Vetiver, Frankincense, Geranium, Lavender, and a blend of Rose, Neroli and Melissa.