Turn on Your Right Brain
This morning I sat down to write about how we can all learn to better use the right hemispheres of our brains-
For 30 minutes, I tapped restlessly
at a laptop. Nothing much happened, idea-wise. Flat beer.
Finally I resorted to a strategy I call the Kitchen Sink. I read bits
of eight books: four accounts of brain research, one novel about India,
one study of bat behavior, one biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and one
memoir of motherhood. Next I drove to my favorite Rollerblading
location, listening en route to a stand-up comic, a mystery novel, and
an Eckhart Tolle lecture. I yanked on my Rollerblades and skated around,
squinting slack-jawed into the middle distance. After a while, a tiny
lightbulb went on. “Well,” I thought, “I could write about this.”
The Kitchen Sink, you see, is one way to activate your brain’s
creative right hemisphere. Every writer I’ve ever met uses some version
of it, as do Web designers, cartoonists, TV producers—all “content
creators” who regularly face the terrifying thought, “Well, I’ve gotta
come up with something.”
If you’re not a content creator, wait a while. The 21st century is to
content creators what the Industrial Revolution was to factory workers:
In a world where information is superabundant, unique and creative
ideas are hot-ticket advantages both personally and professionally. More
and more people are finding more and more ways to parent, make money,
find friends, and generally live well by relying on creativity. The
demand for creative thinking is both a challenge and an opportunity. It
requires us to use more than the logical left-brain skills we learned in
school. These days, we all need to get back into our right minds.
Historically, most brain science came from studying people whose
brains had been damaged. Depending on the injury’s location, these
patients had varying disabilities: If you lost one brain section, you
might be unable to do long division; wipe out another patch, and your
lace-tatting days were over. The famous Phineas Gage had an iron rod
rammed all the way through his head, permanently losing the ability to
be nice. One can hardly blame him.
People with left-hemisphere brain injuries may have trouble thinking
analytically or making rational decisions. Many with damage to the right
hemisphere, on the other hand, can still pass their SATs but become
unable to connect parts into a meaningful whole. Oliver Sacks wrote
about such a patient in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
This gentleman saw perfectly but could identify what he saw only by
guessing. If you showed him a rose, he might say, “Well, it’s red on
top, green and prickly below, and it smells nice…. Is it a flower?” One
day, while looking for a hat to put on, he reached for his wife instead,
perhaps thinking: “It’s familiar, and it goes with me everywhere…. Is
it my hat?” I’m sure this was awful for his poor wife, though it could
have been worse (“Well, it’s the size of a small house and it needs
cleaning…Is it my garage?”). But still.
For most of Western history the right side of the brain was
short-shrifted by neurologists intent on helping people think
“rationally.” Only in recent years have experts begun to laud the
creative, holistic right hemisphere. Interestingly, left-hemisphere
strokes appear to be more common than right-hemisphere strokes. Perhaps
we’re overusing our left hemispheres to the point of blowout. Or perhaps
illness is trying to nudge us back to the mysteries and gifts of the
right brain. Fortunately, we now know we can effect this change
deliberately, without having to survive neurological disaster.
In his fascinating book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
describes how the brain reacts when a person develops a new skill.
Performing an action involves firing an electrical signal through a
neural pathway; each time this happens, it thickens the myelin sheath
that surrounds nerve fibers like the rubber coating on electrical wires.
The thicker the myelin sheath around a neural pathway, the more easily
and effectively we use it. Heavily myelinated pathways equal mad skills.
Train yourself with deep practice
Throughout your education, you myelinated the left-brain pathways for
thinking logically. You were prepared for predictability and order, not
today’s constant flood of innovation and change. Now you need to build
up myelin sheaths around new skill circuits, located in your right
hemisphere. To do this, you need something Coyle calls deep practice.
Deep practice is the same no matter what the skill. First visualize
an ability you’d like to acquire—swimming like Dara Torres, painting
like Grandma Moses, handling iron rods like Uncle Phineas. Then try to
replicate that behavior. Initially, you’ll fail. That’s good; failure is
an essential element of deep practice. Next, analyze your errors,
noting exactly where your performance didn’t match your ideal. Now try
again. You’ll still probably fail (remember, that’s a good thing), but
in Samuel Beckett’s words, you’ll “fail better.”
Examples of people engaged in deep practice are everywhere. Think of American Idol
contestants improving their singing, or Tiger Woods perfecting his golf
swing. I once saw a television interviewer present Toni Morrison with
the original manuscript of one of her masterpieces. Morrison became
slightly distracted, running critical eyes across the page, wanting to
make changes. She clearly can’t stop deep practicing. That’s why she won
the Nobel Prize.
Deep practice is hard. It makes your brain feel like a piece of raw
hamburger. It’s also weirdly rewarding, dropping you into rapt
concentration, yielding quick improvement, and (if you’re lucky)
producing good work. Here are some tricks you can deep practice to buff
up your right hemisphere.
1. Sign your name every which way.
My favorite teacher and artist, Will Reimann, was brilliant at getting his students
to use the right side of their brains. There were many squinty eyes in
Reimann’s studio, much neural myelination. Here’s one of his exercises:
Sign your name.
Okay, now things get gnarly. Sign again, but this time, do it in
mirror writing—right to left, rather than left to right (just moving
your hand backward fires the right brain hemisphere). Got that? Now sign
upside down. Then backward and upside down. Repeat this until you can
sign in all directions. Good luck.
2. Have a bilateral conversation. For this exercise,
take a pencil in your right hand (even if you’re left-handed) and write
the question: “How’s it going?” Then switch to your left hand, and
write whatever pops up. Your nondominant hand’s writing will be
shaky—that’s okay. The important thing isn’t tidiness; it’s noticing
that your twin hemispheres have different personalities.
The right side of the brain, which controls the left hand, will say things you don’t know that you know.
It specializes in assessing your
physical and mental feelings, and it often offers solutions. “Take a
nap,” your right hemisphere might say, or “Just do what feels right;
we’ll be fine.” You’ll find there’s a little Zen master in that left
hand of yours (not surprisingly, left-handed people are
disproportionately represented in creative professions).
3. Learn new moves. You need your right hemisphere
to move in an unfamiliar way, whether you’re learning a complicated
dance step or holding a new yoga posture. Or cutting your own hair
(actually, don’t—I speak from experience).
Try this: Walk a few steps, noticing how your arms swing opposite
your legs. Now walk with your right arm and right foot going forward
simultaneously, then the left hand and left foot. Is this difficult? No?
Then do it backward, with your eyes closed—any variation that’s
initially hard but ultimately learnable. You’ll master a new skill,
sure; more important, you’ll build your overall right-brain facility.
4. Toss in the kitchen sink. Time to push your newly
awakened right hemisphere into useful service. Think of a problem
that’s had you stumped for a while: Your preschooler won’t nap, you
can’t make yourself exercise, you need to cut expenses without
sacrificing quality of life. With this challenge in your mind, read a
few paragraphs in several totally unrelated books. Then relax. Play with
your cat, wash the dishes, watch the neighbors through binoculars.
Think of the problem periodically, then drop it again.
This process encourages eureka epiphanies, like those moments in TV
dramas where the brilliant doctor or sleuth gets the “ping” of insight
that solves the case. Your first few ideas may not be perfect—many will
be awful—but there are more where they came from. Once you begin
encouraging the right brain to churn out solutions, it will do so more
and more abundantly.
Turning on your right brain is a skill, one that grows steadily
stronger the more you work at it. Trigger the sensation of deep practice
by mastering any unfamiliar task, feed challenges and stray information
into your right brain’s database, and see new ideas begin to emerge. As
they do, you’ll move more confidently and productively through an
increasingly complex world. When I see you out Rollerblading, eyes
locked in a vacant yet squinty stare, I’ll know you’re getting the hang