05/14/2008 07:50 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Left Brain, Right Brain

One thing I know about meditation: it does afford the practitioner the opportunity to take a daily look at how the brain functions -- even when we don't particularly want it to!

2008-05-14-HumanBrain.jpgAt the session of one of our artists' support groups yesterday, my wife and I showed My Stroke of Insight, the Ted video of Jill Bolte Taylor speaking about the stroke that could have taken her life, but instead inspired her with a whole new understanding of the human brain and how it works. (If there's anyone out there who has not yet seen this tape, please take my word for it that it will be one of the most brilliant 18 minutes you have ever spent.)

A neuroanatomical scientist trained with exquisite left brain skills, Jill Taylor was gifted with the knowledge and observational powers to watch, minute by minute, as her brain suffered the stroke that temporarily deprived her of left brain function and shifted her for great moments of insight completely into the right. Her account of the experience tells an enormous amount about the creative mind and--much more than that--about the role of the right brain in facilitating that desire for peace and harmony with the universe outside our small "selves" that may yet save the world from our left-brained need to possess, analyze, dissect, and control.

2008-05-14-HumanBrain2.jpgI'm not opposed to rational thought. In fact, I do a great deal of it myself. I deal in words. I trust my left brain to function healthily to organize my life and make intelligent decisions. It does seem to me, however, that the whole trope of what we are pleased to call our civilization, particularly in the past two hundred years or so of "progress," has been to empower the left brain at the expense of the right. I believe that at this point in our history as a species, we have lost the balance between left and right, and that the results have been disastrous. Jill Bolte Taylor's wonderful, insightful, humorously-told story serves to remind us of what it is that we risk sacrificing unless we choose to honor more seriously the role of the right brain and to respect its ability to reveal the world in a different light, where the little "I" is empowered to see itself in the context of the greater "we."

Are you right- or left-brained? Silly question, really, since none of us could function in the world with only one side of the brain operative. Still, it seems clear that one side of the brain may predominate in each of us individually. One of our group members later sent me this fascinating test to help determine which is true for you: if you see the figure spin clockwise, it seems, you're likely to be right-brained. If anti-clockwise, left. And yes, believe me, she DOES spin in the opposite direction, too! Obviously, you can't see her spin in both directions at the same time, but blink your eyes and the direction might change, as it has done a couple of times for me. I'm pretty sure that you can't consciously do anything to choose which way she seems to move. I've tried that, and it hasn't worked. It's not a rational choice. I will say, though, that after trying quite a number of times now, I find that she almost always spins clockwise for me. How about for you?
One other thing I'd add: as a meditation practitioner, I have noticed that I can actually watch the mind switch from activity in one lobe to activity in the other. In this circumstance, I believe there is a choice. The "monkey mind" with its distracting thought processes is clearly the activity of the verbal, thinking left brain; as the mind moves more deeply into the meditative state, it can abandon left-brain activity in favor of a sense of total right-brain oneness with the ambient, sensate world, and relax into that state of bliss that Jill Bolte Taylor describes in her video. It's one of the great benefits one can reap in following the path the Buddha laid out. It's worth a try...