“I just sat down and thought about the things that make me feel better,” a patient said to me the other day, “and remembered how good I feel when I listen to classical music.” He went on to tell me that he had started making time to listen to it, and even been to a couple of concerts. It had done him a world of good, and had lifted his mood far more than any of the solutions I had suggested. I can’t know for certain, but I suspect he had tapped into the right side of his brain.
The two halves of the brain certainly have different functions. We have known that the left side of the brain is crucial for the use of language ever since a doctor called Paul Broca conducted an autopsy in 1861 on a patient who died of syphilis. This patient had acquired the nickname ‘Tan’ as it was the only word he could say clearly, and a particular part of his left cerebral hemisphere had been destroyed by the syphilis bacterium. This area of the brain is now known as ‘Broca’s area’.
The left side of the brain helps us to interpret the world through words and language. It can deal with order, structure, timetables and lists. Whenever you are aware of an almost audible, or internally visible, running commentary going on in your head, that is the left side of your brain at work. The commentary might be as highbrow as a complex analysis of an intellectual debate on the radio, or might be as a banal as wondering why the woman in front of you on the train is wearing that top with those trousers. The important thing is that its currency is words and language. It is logical and questions everything, sometimes flitting about with countless thoughts that seem to whirr around inside our head. It is good at tasks and keeping to time. It is vital if we are to get things done – but it finds it hard to stop, to slow down, to “lie down in green pastures and be led beside quiet waters,” – and so it is vulnerable to stress and burnout.
The right side of our brain is more aware of concepts and mood – if it listens to sounds it will pick up the feel of a piece of music, and often experience something ‘that words cannot describe.’ When the right side of the brain sees, it is happy to look in the abstract. The left will always try to pick out patterns – is that a face in that tree? A dog in the cloud? – while the right will take pleasure in the forms themselves, whatever they might represent – will enjoy the feel of wind on the face without wondering whether or not this means it might rain later and what about a rain coat?
Artists are keen to develop the right side of the brain. When someone first tries to learn how to draw a face, the left side will often dominate. It thinks it knows what an eye or a nose looks like, and will convince the artist to draw it the way it thinks it should be, rather than drawing the often odd collection of shapes in front of them that actually make up a human face – and then the left side will scold the would be artist for drawing the face wrong and being rubbish at art. If, however, the artist can allow the right side to take over it will be more content to deal with abstract forms, lines and shadows and then, eventually, the left side will be amazed that a face has appeared – and that it looks right!
You know you are in ‘right brain mode’ when your internal conversation begins to slow down, when times passes without you realising it and you are ‘lost’ in something, when you don’t have to think about what to think, and you couldn’t make yourself think about anything else anyway, even if you tried. I cannot quote you any medical research to prove it, but I am absolutely convinced that this must be good for us, that it allows the left side of the brain to rest for a while and, as the psalmist puts it “restores my soul.”
What fascinates me is that what taps deep into the right side of one person’s brain might barely cross the midline in another. A friend of mine enjoys running. When she is outdoors, speeding along a muddy track somewhere, she completely loses herself – afterwards she would struggle to tell you what she was thinking as she ran, she just knows how good it felt. When I go for a run I get bored. I find myself scratching for things to think about, calculating again and again how far I’ve run, and how far I have to go. No, if I want to engage the right side of my brain I’d do far better to get out into the garden with a trowel, or pick up a pencil and get drawing. For my patient at the beginning of this post it was listening to classical music, for another it will be playing the music themselves. It seems to me that an important way to protect ourselves from burnout and depression is to find out the way to get our own right brain engaged, and make time in our week to exercise it.
The apostle Paul says these words in the letter to the Phillipians (Chapter 4 v 8): “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Regardless of our religious persuasion, I’m sure we can all agree that to spend time on things that are good – and do us good – must be something to aim for. Maybe the right side of the brain is the key to finding some of these things.