Sunday, May 30, 2010

Left Brain, Right Brain, No Brain, Whole Brain

A month ago I saw a peculiar chart from Dan Eden. It was posted on a writer's self-help blog, which was attempting to get writers to reflect on how we think and how such scrutiny might help us escape writer’s block. I loved the sentiment, but got stuck on the chart. I stared at it for longer than I spent reading the article. Eden had divided functions of “left-brained people” from those of “right-brained people,” suggesting you were more of one or the other.

Logical on one side, feeling on the other. It makes sense if you think about it for two seconds. My problem was thinking about it for three. Not only does most contemporary neuroscience suggest longterm lefty/righty dominance is woeful oversimplification, but the processes on the chart were far too cooperative - often they either cause each other or are actually different terms for processes on the opposite side. After three minutes, I opened MSPaint to work some things out. It went like this.

“math and science” and “philosophy & religion” are on opposite sides. In our modern world we like to pretend that these two tag teams are always at odds. But if that were the case, then how did Sir Isaac Newton, father of Calculas, inertia and gravity, spend so much time writing theology? How could Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, systematically demonstrate and invent hereditary theory with his pea plants? These thinkers seemed to have both halves of the brain quite active. Travel further back in time and you find Philosophy is where Science began (at least in Europe); the sciences were considered part of fundamental philosophical education in Aristotle’s day. Even today our ideas of epistemology, which underlie all scientific inquiry, come from philosophy of what is knowable. To perform any science is to engage in a philosophy of knowledge.

There are other curious divisions. “math and science” are on one side while “symbols and images” are on the other. Except Mathematics are entirely represented by symbols: the plus sign, the division marker, and the entire numerical alphabet (1, 2, 3 – these are all symbols). In fact most mathematics are imaginary – not just the field of “imaginary numbers,” but advanced mathematics can’t be physically demonstrated. In the philosophical scientific field of Positivism, Positivists invented an easy-out by saying some things were just true without empirical demonstration in order to keep Mathematics in their otherwise observation-based system. Not only did early Positivists grapple with “math and science” being at odds, but they showed traits like “imagination rules” and “presents possibilities” would be essential on the other side of the left/right brain line.

“knows object function” is also on the other side from “math and science.” The physical sciences, from molecular chemistry to physiology to astrophysics, are all about knowing the properties and functions of things. Separating knowing what a thing does from the fundamental exploration of what things do is downright silly.

But let’s not throw away the chart just because of a few inconsistencies. Let’s draw lines where one item from one side might connect to the other.

That’s not so bad. After all, science explores the physical world, and you’ve got to have some of the right brain rooted in it. But we missed that “philosophy & religion” might have implications on the other side, too.

For instance, “knowing” is on the left side. Well we already said that epistemology is the philosophy of what we can know. Science and epistemological philosophy are intrinsically linked in their focus on reality – but “reality based” thought is also intrinsically linked to them. “uses logic” being on the opposite side from philosophy is also ridiculous; philosophy without logic is like legos without bricks. Similarly, “practical thinking” is encompassed in the philosophy of pragmatism, so a practical thinker might well be a right-brain-thinking philosopher. The “Chicago Club” certainly thought so.

“present and past” is on the left brain side. Religion, despite hosting prophecies, is largely about precedents and past. Jesus and Mohammed lived a long time ago and billions of people reflect on them. Holy scriptures require people to think about what should be modernized and what should remain true from back then. You can’t get anywhere in theology without studying the past luminaries. And once you get into comparative religion and religious anthropology, it’s largely past-centric thinking.

Come to think of it, “math and science” should be linked to “present and future” thinking. Science is often validated based on its predictions of future conditions. That whole “hypothesis” thing? Scientific thinking sets up experiments predicting what will happened based on what we know now.

So let’s fix those.

"philosophy & religion" still bothers me. With their codes and ways of seeing the world, major religions are essentially series of strategies for dealing with life. Forming and testing dogma is strategic thinking. These strategies make many followers feel safe, whether in that their lives have meaning, they’re doing the right things, or that death will not be the end of them. So “forms strategies” and “safe” are really qualities that are intrinsic to a lot of religious thinking. They’re part of perceiving patterns and applying order – but wait, “order/pattern perception” is also on the other side from "philosophy & religion." We’ll connect all those after the next paragraph.

As we’re considering ways of viewing life and everything, you can’t help but notice “ “big picture” oriented ” is on the right brain side. We often relegate "the big picture" to religion, but physicists who probe how many dimensions the universe has, where it all came from, and how everything works, are just as invested in the big picture. I’ll connect them now. Sorry for the delay, physicists.

Science and religion are giant concepts. Of course they overlap. We should step away from them, but there's one more connection that really deserves a look.

“knowing” and "believes” are supposed to be opposite traits on the chart. We like to say that you just believe something while I know the truth, but what is knowing? It’s believing in something that happens to be true. There’s not a great deal of neuroscientific difference between someone thinking he knows a thing and someone believing a thing. It’s the same experience to the knower or believer – the difference lies in the physical world, where a belief is found to be true or false. Inside the head, the formation of assumptions, ability to doubt and severity of conviction is the same. Validating a belief with evidence is scientific, but do I have to explain epistemology again? The “knowing” and “believes” division is downright improper labeling for brain activity. To be fair, we’ll connect this to “math and science” and “philosophy & religion” with a special paradoxical purple line.

“words and language” is a big one to hang out on its own. Language is our major form of communication. It’s odd that it would appear in the left-brain with all the stuffy logical thinking when it’s vital to the humanities.

If you’re thinking about “words and language,” then you must be thinking about their functions. We unconsciously process the functions of thousands of words and grammatical structures every day. You’re bound to reflect on them as you struggle for the right word, or rephrase something you said improperly. If you’re like me, you’re thinking about words and language every few minutes. Consciously as well as unconsciously, though, “words and language” are intrinsically connected to the trait of “knows object function.”

Think of all the illuminated language used in religion. The King James Bible and Paradise Lost are considered two of the most beautiful works in the English language, and they took considerable literary thought. Similarly, think of all the sharp philosophical quotes you’ve heard, or the rigorous rhetoric of major philosophical texts – a lot of philosophers were clearly interested or attuned to thinking in language. If you believe in revelation of any scripture, then you believe these impulses can be tied to “words and language.” And if you don’t? It might be because you’ve read a skeptic who was particularly attuned with his own words and language.

One attraction of great books is that they make us feel so much. I once had a wild argument with an entire college class over whether William Shakespeare was a great literary thinker, or (in their opinion) a shrewd observer of the human condition. I lost. Even I’ll admit I was half-wrong: the guy could spin a rhyme, meter and quotable line better than almost anyone in English history, but he used it to capture and evoke feeling. That’s because, like a lot of people who use “words and language,” he was also the kind who “uses feeling.” And while I don’t care for his Sonnets as much as my Lit. professors wanted me to, I recognize that the use of feeling is intrinsic to the entire field of poetry.

If people who think deeply in “words and language” can use feeling, what about impetuous writers? From ludicrous puns to the brash literary risks of Norman Mailer and William Burroughs, “words and language” liberate us and make us impetuous. “impetuous” is on the other side from “words and language,” right above “risk taking.” Every year critics praise some author for taking risks. Do you want to bet all of those authors entered the risk-taking zone free of literary thought? These things can clearly be connected in cognition.

Across the chart from “words and language” is the item of “symbols and images.” That’s a weird opposition. All the letters that make up words are symbols. Go back in history and you find cultures like that of Egypt using hieroglyphics – pictures that conveyed what we use words for. In fact, our ability to process the sounds that make up words is also the result of a symbolic process – one that attaches meaning to noise.

We’re not done with “words and language.” As a writer, I think about how “words and language” affect my mind every day. I’m also a Fantasy writer. A great deal of fantasy-based thinking comes across on the page, where you experiment with ideas and invent new realities. It offends me to see “fantasy based” thought on the other side from “words and language.” Conan, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter – all results of literary fantastic thought. And that’s because imagination can rule on the page – but “imagination rules” is on the other side from “words and language.”

I appreciate Conan, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. I appreciate some more than others, but the appreciation of words and language (and what they convey) is a basic human trait. Certainly an artistic trait. So “appreciates” also doesn’t seem right unconnected to “words and language.”

A little more Fantasy. You know, J.R.R. Tolkien spent years building his Middle Earth. He was distinctly “big picture” oriented in its construction. Nowadays that kind of “big picture” world-building is the stuff of workshops and fandom in popular fantastic fiction. The biggest Fantasy nerds want to know how your fictional world works. If you’d prefer me to be more reality-based, why, just writing my thoughts about this chart have helped me think about the big picture of mental life. “words and language” is so getting connected to “ “big picture” oriented.”

Come to think of it, I’ve been using “words and language” to “present possibilities” to you. Writing, or thinking about writing, or thinking while writing – these are ways I generate possibilities, problems and solutions. I'm doing it right now.

I should back away from “words and language.” A writer has a lot of cross-thinking going on with that trait.

You know what I haven’t paid enough attention to? “uses logic.”

I understand the schism between logic and feeling. Reason and intuition. Even if our brains are wired to make logical connections unconsciously, going off the handle and going by the book are different. I’m not going to connect them impulsively.

But how the heck can you study the “big picture” without logic? Sure you can feel it, but it’s the use of logic that helps us analyze big systems like quantum physics and sociology. That’s as silly as saying logic isn’t used in determining or classifying the function of an object. Unfortunately, the chart says that too. We’ll fix it in a moment.

We see “symbols and images” way over on the right side because we figure those are tools of art. But “words and language” are on the opposite side. We’ve already discussed how this is nonsense. Languages are logical, and any use of them requires the exercise of logical thought. Grammars are the logic of symbolic systems.

“present and future?” Now wait a minute. All those scientific hypotheses about what will happen in the future based on what’s happening now are the attempts to extend logic beyond the empirically observable. Aside from gut feelings and thunderous revelation from the heavens, our thoughts of the future are immutably tied to attempts at constructive logical thought.

We’ve tied “knowing” and “believes” because they’re intrinsically related thought processes. Surely there are scientists pissed at me for that. We like to associate knowledge with certainty and accumulated evidence. Yet belief doesn’t always spring out of nowhere. You read the evidence for global warming and come to believe in it; empiricism and logic were at work. Sometimes it’s bad logic at work: my mother believes the cream on the Home Shopping Network will remove her wrinkles because they showed her what they claimed to be examples of success. That was the evidence; and thus my Mom believed it and got her credit card. It’s a logical process, if often a flawed one. Logic shows up at some stage of belief all the time.

Most forms of criticism try to construct artificial systems by which we’ll judge things. Literary critic James Wood is happy to tell you “How Fiction Works” – it’s even the title of one of his books. Literary critics have their logics and rationalizations for literature. There are similar logical and pseudo-logical standards across the arts, all entwined in appreciation. I’ve even been in arguments with people who had strict critical dogmas for pro wrestling matches. So “uses logic” may often pop up in “appreciates,” perhaps even more often than in “acknowledges.”

You might tell me logic and fantasy are opposed. I’ll then tell you that logic helps people make stuff up all the time – that’s why “uses logic” and “math and science” are on the same side. Logic helps scientists invent theories that are yet to be validated, and helps mathematicians come up with things they can only prove on paper. The best liars are those who can think up something logical enough that you won’t question it. Logic even helps Fantasy authors think through their invented worlds.

Sometimes a Fantasy writer has to think practically. We’ll name our made-up things to keep track of them. It’d be too hard otherwise - but wait, “knows object name” and “practical” are on the wrong sides. Even the craziest fantastic thinkers need to acknowledge reality, either in finding ways to reject it, or accommodate some form of realism.

Crap, I forgot “acknowledges.” We’ll need to deal with that. Acknowledging rather than engaging and appreciating in some way is a huge part of the human condition. We recognize it without obsessing – it’s what keeps you from writing essays about charts. It’s so vital a feature that I feel like we’re about to add some lines.

You’d think “acknowledges” would live on its own. But when you’re feeling something, the ability to acknowledge but not engage contrary information helps preserve those dominant feelings. It’s the same when you’re flying through a book – you’re mostly acknowledging the logical and symbolic structures of the language, processing them unconsciously. That’s how imagination can rule, by touching on reality without grounding too much in it. This actually happens in a lot of disciplines, allowing chemists to remain on chemistry rather than getting caught up in unfamiliar biology – but also allowing you to focus on your beliefs and just acknowledge other religions, or to gloss over philosophies irrelevant to your current thinking.

A little more semantic, but if you’re only thinking about the present and future, then you’re more likely to only acknowledge the past rather than strongly consider it. That’s rare since most people contextualize all three periods of time, but it’s unavoidable when you’re isolating just two.

A similar division is essential in “getting it.” Just feeling the meaning, grasping the essence of the situation rather than processing all its details, requires you to be able to acknowledge and buffer yourself from those details. Otherwise, you’d have to “comprehend” everything.

Spatial perception has largely been on its own for this exercise. But at last, it’s got a friend. You see, spatial perception is largely unconscious. We all have it and we need it to stay under the surface. By barely conscious processes acknowledging objects in space, we’re able to relative their distances. Acknowledgment is essential to spatial perception.

“knows object function” actually helps the behavior of someone who “acknowledges.” Once you know what a thing does, you can acknowledge it much more easily and act around it or with it without much thought. That’s where driving reflexes come from; you know what the wheel, break and gas pedals do, acknowledge them and use them entirely unconsciously minutes into the trip. It’s similar to the role of acknowledgement in taking risks, because if you’re thinking about or are compelled to take risks, then you’re likely to only acknowledge the things you’re likely to lose rather than get bogged down comprehending potential loss. That sort of reflection usually pops up after you’ve acknowledged and risked the thing.

Let’s bat a little clean up with some brown lines.

-Since when was a “practical” person someone who didn’t think about the “future?” Almost every time I’ve ever been told to think practically, I was being told to think about the ramifications for my future. These two traits are obviously connected.

-Science Fiction is often what happens when a “fantasy based” thinker lets “facts rule.” There’s even a sub-genre called “Hard Science Fiction” for SciFi that is more bound in plausible reality.

-Paintings are images and plenty of painters have obsessed over details in their work. It’s easy to find a “symbols and images” thinker who is “detail oriented” in any community college art class.

-Images, especially in our age of HD photography and video, often represent the world. That’s why there are so many science-based TV channels. So “symbols and images” thinking can easily be connected both the “math and science” and to “fact rule”-based thought.

-We often think about being logical to keep us safe, but the feeling of safety is… you guessed it… a feeling.

-Trying to preserve your safety often results in considering multiple possibilities to find the safest option.

-Often we learn about things, like hazardous properties of chemicals, in order to keep ourselves safe. There is even a field of “safety education.” So “safe” and “knows object function” often overlap.

-Ignoring the big picture and only reacting to the details in front of you is impetuous. Detail-oriented thinking can thus be impetuous thinking.

I’m tempted to go into just how many functions of the right brain are “reality based,” or how many rely upon or relate to “order/pattern perception,” but I’ve run out of colors. The number of ways reflection on the past or predictions of the future factor into every other kind of thought might need their own spectrum.

I didn’t expose my terrible MSPaint skills for nothing. I did it because things like this chart are obscene oversimplifications of the human mind. Our brain hemispheres process together. They rely on highly specialized areas like the cerebral cortex and hypothalamus, chemicals like dopamine and seratonin, processing many more kinds of intelligence than “right” and “left,” as well as relying on the chemistry of the rest of your body. If you seriously reflect on that chart you will know that you possess at least one strong trait from either side and that the sides are hardly divorced. They compliment and often actually cause each other. It is a tepid generalization to say that just because the right half of the brain fired more during an exercise related to Trait X that this trait is always in that half.

Like any powerful dualism, I see the truths that the right/left oversimplification is based upon. You may find you have more strong traits on one side. And I’m not saying the things on the left don’t go together. I can see how every one of the left traits would correspond and overlap. The same goes for the traits on the right. Like any powerful dualism, there are truths that made people oversimplify things into this. I’m supportive enough to do this:

Those items are connected. Logic, facts and science are intimate with each other; so are imagination, fantasy and feeling. Yet in most minds there are multitudes of connections across the black/white left/right barrier. It would be wretched if such theories made you think you were only half of a chart that makes up a whole human being.


  1. John!
    Your left brain ran away with the markers. Anne's graph made complete sense to me before you went and got all logical.

    How do you like this for combining logic and imagination, left brain and right brain. Albert Einsteins says, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

    (one of my favorite quotes)

  2. You totally missed the point of the chart and Anne's article. Neither is attempting to suggest that one uses only one side of the brain at the exclusion of the other, but are presenting that each hemisphere has it's certain tendencies. These tendencies help one understand why one may create in a certain way when one hemisphere is dominant. And there are individuals whose creative force come equally from each hemisphere of the brain. Your post illustrates beautifully when one has a left brain dominant tendency, even though I'm sure your right brain was extremely active and was attempting to contribute as well.

  3. I thought this was a brainstorm map for the oil spill solutions.

  4. Jodi, I just couldn't help it. My reason is in service to my feelings, and my reason is in service to my feelings.

    Erin, I only wish I had the kind of brain (and resources) that fixed those sorts of problems.

    Hmm. "Anonymous," you say? I think I've seen that name before.

    I didn't miss the point of Anne's article. I read it, talked to her about it, and even support her thesis in the opening paragraph of this article. No point in my article objects to the point of hers. I wonder if you didn't miss that in rushing to disagree with me. But I can't be certain - I may be thinking of the traits of another Anonymous I met somewhere else. Regardless, your claims are interesting - I was writing from my left-brain while my right-brain was "extremely active." If it's active, it's performing activities. My activity was writing. So you've essentially said I was writing from both hemispheres. I can agree with that.

  5. Oh, John...while I actually agree with you about the interdependencies of brain function, you have now hurt my whole brain...

    I must go soak it in some rum...

  6. Sorry to hurt your brain, Laura. Do you have to detach it to soak it in rum, or do you pour directly into the brain pan?

  7. I think this is brilliant, John. Don't think you missed any points. :)

    Time was, when a guy used his whole brain to affect change in his world, this ability was called magic. Symbols, affinities between things, math, understanding, knowing or gnosis, big-picture vision, reason, feeling, naming, and all the rest, are necessary to manipulate the universe successfully. Just saying.

    But now my head hurts a little, too. :D

    Well done big-picture analysis.


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