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Shifting Gears / Our brains: Two parts make a whole

Published 2:25 pm, Tuesday, January 29, 2013
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I go to Google Maps. I want to get from here to there. I want just the facts -- a map, no scenery or anecdotal surprises, a drawing that shows only lines of blue and yellow, with numbers and the names of towns. And directions, in just a few words, with numbers indicating miles. That's all. Precise. Clear. Definite.

The trip itself, however, is abundant in detail, in unexpected traffic or a generous wave by the driver on my left for me to go ahead. A smile, a wave, a thank-you, an unexpected, brief connection.

The music on my radio is joyous, and I am lost in a little nostalgia and finger-tapping in rhythm. Even an incomprehensible emotional surge in my heart. Crossing over the Tappen Zee, the Jersey side is softened in mist, and looking down from the bridge, I have a moment of queasy vertigo. I don't know exactly when I'll get to my destination or what will occur along the way. Anything could happen. Though I have a plan, I know the experience will be much more than a Google Map.

The map and the journey. They are an example of the two hemispheres of our brains. This division of labor has served us well. Animals have the same divide. It has, we imagine, allowed them to forage for food, attentively focusing on the exact details of the vegetation or prey they need; all the while, rather unconsciously, attending to the wider environment, vigilant for danger. The little picture, narrow and detailed; and the big picture, broad and open.

The two hemispheres of our brains are just like that. The broad and open right brain takes in large swaths of experience, sending it over to the left brain to organize, categorize and put into words. In so doing, much of the information is discarded, simply because our left brain doesn't have a category to put it in. Categories make us feel safe. We're sloppy, however, and throw somewhat similar, but not identical experiences into an ill-fitting category. We've narrowed our world. We might feel comfortable, but we have missed something -- something new and different.

Our right brain keeps the experience, but experientially, without words. It remains in our body and our mind, but it is amorphous, known but not expressible except, perhaps, in metaphor or emotion.

Increasingly, over the past several hundred years, our left brain has become more important to us. We value facts and categories, the sense of being in control and knowing "the truth." Logic is our king. Money, power, competition and winning are its realms. We build our mental skyscrapers upon systems of logic and are suspicious of the vast and the vaguely understood, the mysterious and unknown. Yet that is what most of the world is.

Machines have become our metaphor for understanding the world -- pieces put together to make a whole. The pieces that don't fit can be thrown away. Before our mechanistic view, the organic was our metaphor -- a whole into which we could fit all the pieces. Even though we might not understand how they all fit together, we sensed, and we trusted, that they did. That view, though, leaves us vulnerable to acknowledging that we don't know everything. Those were in our "primitive" beginnings. We explained what we did not understand with myth and magic. But we didn't throw it away.

Our left brain reigns in so many areas of our life today -- in a stymied Congress, in our financial institutions, in the gun-rights debate and the debates over environmental protection vs. jobs, in the short-term view over the long, in educating for the test, rather than the capacity to think.

Our left brain is a big talker, and sometimes it's selling snake oil. Our right brain is silent, wise, intuitive and always truthful. Our right brain sees the big picture, and it needs the left brain to put that picture into words, even while knowing that the words can express only part of the entire reality. We have a whole and wonderful brain. We should use all of it.

Carol Swenson is a counseling psychologist with a practice in Westport. Her "Shifting Gears" appears monthly, and she may be reached at shiftinggears.swenson@gmail.com.