The human being’s primal instinct is for self-preservation. Basic emotions like fear, worry, disgust, anger and even jealousy ensured that we did not get eaten by a predator, fall off a cliff, eat poison, protected the offspring so we are all here today.
That survival has required both the left and right brain combining our reptilian, limbic (emotional) and the neocortex (the executive function) to work in harmony. However, to survive in the modern techno industrial world, the human has been forced to move towards the left part of the brain.
Even though the brain is extremely complex and hard to distinguish in a simplistic way - new findings about our cognition and the Dorsal (above and below the midbrain), Ventral (the lower part of the brain and body) and Daniel Kahneman's writing on fast and the slow brain - Harvard Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has brought the attention back to the left and right brains.
Her latest work shows how the left brain has dominated us in the 20th century, which informs how the modern world evolved socially, economically, politically with science and technology driving a consumerist world.
Left brain thinks linearly in the past and future tense, structured and certain, analytical, detail oriented, seeks differences, happy to separate, critical and judgmental, can be fear-based and righteous. This is essential to survive or even thrive in the modern-techno-industrial world.
When anything unfamiliar and uncertain appears, the emotional side of
the left brain sends us into a fight-flight-play dead-fear response, arousing
the sympathetic nervous system – which is reptilian and primal. This is what we see in the global fear
psychosis - driven by governments and media in the last 2 years, paralyzing and
separating people in the efforts to stop the pandemic.
Psychologist and Conflict Mediator, Marshall Rosenberg observes that the left- brain dominance of the modern human has resulted in the following;
“Most of us have been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand, diagnose, - to think and communicate in terms of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ with people. At best this way of thinking and speaking hinders communication, creating misunderstanding and frustration, at its worst - it leads to violence”.
Anxiety and fear can trap us in the left emotional brain – to judge and demand in terms of what is right and wrong as Rosenberg states. This fear psychosis separates and creates conflict, as we see today.
Many today are stuck in the sympathetic nervous system where cholesterol triggers stress hormone such as cortisol and adrenaline – to fight or flee and worse still, it stops the blood flow to the digestive system.
The emotional and physical fallout from the allostatic load buildup of stress during the last 2 years can manifest disease and a mental health epidemic into the future.
The Three Arrows
The Buddhist parable of two arrows illustrates how we can get a hold of our emotions as it triggers.
We have no control over the first arrow that triggers an emotion as it comes from the outside, yet when we are not mindful and unaware, the second arrow hits, giving rise to an emotion(s).
We do have a choice with the second arrow though, as we can respond rather than react by catching it before it hits the ego driven emotion.
An elegant way to catch the second arrow is by becoming mindfully aware – take a deep breath and say ‘observe’ to stop the emotion - the feeling that arises. This pause creates space to connect the mind and body to become present, rather than stay on auto-pilot to get caught up in the arising emotion of anxiety, fear, anger or frustration.
With skill and mindfulness, we can pause to move ourselves in a few seconds to the right brain to catch the second arrow, to acknowledge the arising emotion, but not react to it on auto-pilot. This space enables us to become open, fearless and resilient to receive even a harsh criticism with grace, put it in perspective and respond.
If we allow the second arrow to penetrate and the emotion remains, it could open us to a third arrow - a mood we may fall into from ruminating on the emotion.
It Takes Practice
With practice we can learn the skill to stop a feeling - the emotion and the arising thought when the first arrow hits – the trigger - by simply taking a deep breath and saying ‘observe’.
That may take 5 seconds to break the emotional trigger and the ego getting dragged into the arising sentiment. Those 5 seconds are invaluable to gain the space, pause and respond with awareness rather than react on auto-pilot, which may burn bridges to be regretted later.
Focus on the Breath
This is not easy to do. It requires us to learn to become aware of the breath at the heat of the moment, especially as our power is being taken away.
Like anything else, it takes a commitment to a regular meditation practice (focus on the breath is the easiest) to become mindful and present.
Focus on self to go inward to become familiar with the busy mind and learn to manage it by moving from thought to awareness.
Taking a deep breath with an intention to let go of trying to fix things, enables us to move to the right side of the brain to become expansive, open to possibilities and fearless - to not react to the immediate triggers, find space and some freedom to put things in perspective to respond .
As we work through the pandemic, the ‘cognitive dissonance’ arising from confusing messages from the experts on one end, conspiracy theorists on the other and everyone in between - as goal posts change, can render us helpless in fear to be stuck in the left brain. In times of uncertainty, our mental faculties can distort the realities to lead us into despair.
In desperation, to make sense of the dissonance, we seek anchors by finding scapegoats to blame. Anyone who seems outside the mainstream narrative becomes a threat and lines of separation are drawn between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – this self righteousness hinder communications that can lead to conflict.
When we understand how our brains and minds work, and learn a time-tested practice as mindfulness, we can be more skillful in dealing with such an untenable situation.
Balancing and Harmonizing the Left and the Right Brain
In her new book Whole Brain Living, Bolte-Taylor reveals to a left brained world the more expansive holistic right side of the brain, which thinks experientially in the present moment. It is fearless, loves unconditionally, is kind and compassionate, flexible and resilient, creative, seeks similarities to connect in the way we experience our behaviour;
“If we live with the belief that there is only one group of cells that process our emotions, our mixed emotions can be confusing. At a neuroanatomical level, when we experience conflicting feelings, it is because we have two groups of emotional cells that are separate from each other.”
We have a choice to harmonize the two brains by taking a deep breath to pause and say 'observe', to gain some space to think critically.
When we take responsibility for ourselves and open our minds to balance the left and right brains, we can become fearless to let go of the differences - compromise, to be gracious, open to consider another person's point of view.
The Evolving Brain
Bolte Taylor cautions us;
“Even though from an evolutionary point of view, our brain is an amazing neurological achievement, our brain is far from being a finished product.”
Her statement - ‘humanity exists in an ongoing state of evolution’ should humble us to realize our limitations.
An intentional mindfulness practice can help us evolve as we manage our thoughts and narratives to impact our neurological processes.
Jill Bolte Taylor also points to mindfulness-based tools to harmonize the left and right brain. This important and unusual research and findings can help us to change the way we are dealing with our life's challenges including the current pandemic.
Otherwise, this pandemic of the virus may turn into a pandemic of mental health and other illnesses.
The 'gaslighting'(1) that happens with confusing narratives - the see-saw of changing rules and mandates, as decision makers are also trying their best to stem the pandemic, is playing havoc with people’s minds with doubt and fear.
The simple mindfulness practice to focus on the breath and say 'observe' stops the thoughts to move to awareness and knowing – to gain the space to invoke the right brain for balance and harmony.
This is the way we may find that inner power and resilience by enacting
the whole brain to deal with the many traumas that we face today and in our lifetime with
I end with a poem inspiring us to honour ourselves by Derek Walcott:
"Give back the heart to itself
To the stranger who has loved you all your life
Whom you have ignored for another
Who knows you by heart"
(1) Gaslighting - a specific type of manipulation where the manipulator is trying to get someone else (or a group of people) to question their own reality, memory or perceptions