Personal Growth - How to Get a Whole Brain
by Luis S. R. Vas
Cognitive Style TestThe quiz below only tests your cognitive style, not your abilities.
Get a blank sheet of lined paper. Every time you read a description or characteristic that applies to you, write down its
“The simple geography of right brain/left brain has made it very appealing – to the point that there is almost a hemispheric racism. While the right/left brain notation has some value in indicating that not all thinking is linear and symbolic the matter has been exaggerated to the point that it is dangerous and limiting and doing great harm to the cause of creativity.”
- Edward de Bono in Serious Creativity
Have you ever filled out a questionnaire to work out whether you’re a ‘left brain’ (verbal, mathematical, analytical), ‘right brain’ (visual, artistic), or a bilateral person? Can the distinction really be made?
“When someone says they are right or left-brain, it’s really just a metaphor for a cognitive style,” says neuropsychologist Associate Professor Michael Saling from Australia. “Without a doubt the popular left and right division of the brain is an over-simplification. For example, research is showing that musical, artistic and intuitive thinking can’t be thought of as strictly lateralised, or exclusively of the right hemisphere.”
Saling says we know with confidence that basic language processes are predominantly controlled by the left hemisphere, and spatial cognition like navigation or face recognition are coordinated by the right hemisphere. But when it comes to the question of ability, both hemispheres work in concert with each other.
“Every single cognitive function has right hemisphere and left hemisphere components. To avoid competition between the two halves of the brain there is a division of labour between the left and the right,” says Saling.
In his book, Half A Brain is Enough: The Story of Nico, Spanish cognitive psychologist, Antonio M Battro recounts the moving story of a young boy who underwent a hemispherectomy to remove much of the right half of his brain.
He recovered well from the procedure. But how can a person be a person with an entire half of the person’s brain missing? As psychologist Antonio Battro provocatively puts it, “How can half a brain sustain a full mind? Do we really need so many neurons and so many synapses to be human?”
Nico suffered from life-threatening epilepsy, and his hemispherectomy was to remove the half of his brain tormented by seizure-inducing electrical storms.
He apparently now lives epilepsy-free, has plenty of friends, and with the help of a computer (his “intellectual prosthesis”) he is powering through school. Nico has a high IQ, and he possesses exceptional language skills for his age. Speech and language are understood to be primarily capacities of the left brain – so whether the fact that he only has a left brain is a factor in that is an interesting but unanswered possibility.
Outwardly, the only sign that Nico has half a brain is a limp, and difficulty with movement of his left side. He also has a condition described as left hemianopia, which means signals entering the retina of his left eye aren’t processed by his brain, and so he has no “left visual field”. That is because all images entering our left eye are processed by the right side of our brain (as are all the movements of the left side of our body, and vice versa), which in Nico’s case is missing.
An adult undergoing the same procedure would have fared very differently, suggests Battro. A four-year-old’s network of brain cells (neurons) are plastic and malleable in a way that the connections between the 100 billion neurons in our own cortex (the outer layer of our brain) aren’t. The neurons in the left side of Nico’s brain effectively rewired themselves to each other to take over many of the functions of his amputated right hemisphere. But Battro may be already out of date. More recent research shows that aged adults too can restructure their brains. Stroke patients who lost the use of their limbs on one side of their body recovered their use by having their other limbs immobilised. Having no other choice, their brains reconnected to the useless limbs and reused them!
“In a neurophysiological sense, Nico had been forced to develop a new brain, a new hemisphere, in his first three years of life,” writes Battro. “My friend Nico is a normal child. Only his brain images remind (me) of his brain condition…he has a well-kept secret in his skull.”
Do two halves make a whole?
If a child like Nico can function beautifully with only half the grey matter, then is the dichotomy made between the two hemispheres of the brain little more than popular mythology?
Not entirely. It’s long been understood that certain functions in the brain are lateralised to the left and right hemispheres (which constantly communicate with each other via a thick bridge of nerve fibres called the corpus callosum). They may look like anatomical mirror images of each other at a macro level, but they receive and process different sorts of incoming sensory information.
Neurologist Roger Sperry won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating that the right and left hemispheres play distinct but complementary roles in adult brains. He looked at patients who had had a callosotomy – where the two hemispheres of the brain are separated by severing the corpus callosum. Their brain is effectively ‘split’ in two. This procedure, another type of hemispherectomy, is sometimes performed on people with severe epilepsy, to stop the transmission of seizures between the left and right halves.
The split brain patients sat directly in front of a screen onto which, in essence, pictures or words were flashed on either side so that they were only processed by one half of the patients’ brain. When a word was flashed on the left hand side, the patients couldn’t say what they’d seen because their non-verbal right hemisphere was left to make sense of the word alone, without the help of its verbal left companion. However, if they were asked to pick up an object behind a screen in front of them with their left hand related to what was on the screen, they picked up the correct object. This indicated that their right brain had in fact “seen” the object and directed their left hand correctly – it just couldn’t help them say what they’d seen.
Wellbeing, and Hemispheres
Other areas where the different hemispheres play specific roles are still being uncovered, but recent studies suggest that the left brain may play a part in human happiness and the immune system.
A research team led by Richard Davidson investigated the effects of meditation on the brain, collaborating with no less a person than the Dalai Lama along the way. In one study, a group of people who had never meditated undertook a two-month course in mindfulness meditation. They showed a significant increase in activation in the left pre-frontal regions of their brain, associated with a reduction in the amount of anxiety they reported. Their immune system was also more robust, as demonstrated by their response to a flu vaccine.
“Our evidence suggests that individuals who exhibit greater activation in certain regions of the left prefrontal cortex have a more positive dispositional mood, that is, they are happier people,” says neuroscientist Richard Davidson, co-editor of The Asymmetrical Brain, who scans the brains of people to explore the neurological basis of emotions.
Another team at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington DC, USA, found that epilepsy patients who had surgery on the left side of their brain were more vulnerable to infection afterwards – they experienced “significant decreases in immune function”. On the other hand, those who had surgery on their right hemisphere “saw the levels of their disease-fighting cells significantly boosted”. The researchers, however, caution that the results only apply to right-handed people; the outcome may be very different for left-handers.
The story of Nico illustrates that a person can get by without half a brain. But for most of us it’s the intimate interaction between the two hemispheres of our brain that makes us who we are.
This especially seems to be the case amongst mathematically gifted adolescents. In a recent study by scientists at the University of Melbourne and the U.S Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences, mathematically gifted students showed a faster and more accurate ability to exchange information between hemispheres than those of average mathematical ability. The researchers describe this as “enhanced interhemispheric interaction and collaboration…and a highly integrated form of bilateralism”.
Whatever your own preference – left or right – there’s no doubt that two halves make a very interesting whole indeed. The contents of our skulls remain an enigma, but as psychologist Joseph Hellige, author of Hemispheric Asymmetry: What’s Right and What’s Left, suggests, it’s now time to put the brain back together again”.
Balance Your Brain
• Rub both palms together whenever you think your brain feels out of balance.
• Alternate nostril breathing – inhale through the left nostril, exhale through the right nostril; in through the right nostril, out through the left, in through the left and so on. Always start with the left nostril.
• Learn to draw. No matter how badly you do it, and you will improve with practice, drawing allows you to take time for yourself, and will leave you feeling much more balanced. We all need to take out time for ourselves once in a while, even if it is only for half an hour. And, with drawing, you have the additional benefit of being left with your own masterpiece to show. So, go grab a pencil, some paper, and tell your left brain to go take a siesta for a while; in doing so your right brain will be so very grateful.
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