Two Brains Are Better Than One - Woodmam

Integrating the Left and the Right

Thomas’s four-year-old daughter, Katie, loved her preschool and never minded saying goodbye to her dad when it was time for him to leave—until the day she got sick in class. Her teacher phoned Thomas, who came to pick her up right away. The next day, Katie began crying when it was time to get ready for school, even though by then she was feeling fine. The same thing happened morning after morning for the next few days. He could eventually get her dressed, but things only got worse when they arrived at school.

As Thomas put it, Katie would increasingly “freak out” once they got out of their car in the school parking lot. First she’d begin to practice some sort of civil disobedience as they approached the school building. She would walk alongside her father, but as she somehow made her tiny body heavier than a grand piano, her resistance would turn their stroll into more of a drag. Then, when they reached the classroom, she would squeeze her dad’s hand harder and harder and perform the classic “power lean,” putting all of her baby-grand weight on Thomas’s leg. When he could finally extricate himself from her clutches and exit the room, he would hear her shout above all the noise of the other kids, “I’ll die if you leave me!”

This type of separation anxiety is very normal for young children. School can be a scary place at times. But as Thomas explained, “Katie absolutely lived for school before she got sick. She loved the activities, the friends, the stories. And she adored her teacher.”

So what happened? How did the simple experience of getting sick create such an extreme and irrational fear in Katie, and what was the best way for Thomas to respond? His immediate goal: come up with a strategy to get Katie to willingly attend school again. That was his “survive” goal. But he also wanted to turn this difficult experience into an opportunity that would benefit Katie in both the short and the long term. That was his “thrive” goal.

We’ll come back to how Thomas handled the situation, using his basic knowledge about the brain to turn a survival moment into an opportunity to help his daughter thrive. Specifically, he understood what we’re going to show you now: some simple principles about how the two different sides of the brain work.

LEFT BRAIN, RIGHT BRAIN: AN INTRODUCTION

You probably know that your brain is divided into two hemispheres. Not only are these two sides of the brain anatomically separate; they also function very differently. Some people even say that the two hemispheres have their own distinct personalities, each side with a “mind of its own.” The scientific community refers to the way the different sides of the brain influence us as left-hemisphere and right-hemisphere modalities. But for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just go with the common usage and talk about your left brain and your right brain.

Your left brain loves and desires order. It is logical, literal, linguistic (it likes words), and linear (it puts things in a sequence or order). The left brain loves that all four of these words begin with the letter L. (It also loves lists.)

The right brain, on the other hand, is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate, such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Instead of details and order, our right brain cares about the big picture—the meaning and feel of an experience—and specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories. We get a “gut feeling” or “heart-felt sense” from our right brain. Some say the right brain is more intuitive and emotional, and we’ll use those terms in the following pages as a helpful shorthand to talk about what the right brain does. But keep in mind that technically, it’s more accurate to talk about this side of the brain as more directly influenced by the body and lower brain areas, which allow it to receive and interpret emotional information. It can get complicated, but the basic idea is that while the left brain is logical, linguistic, and literal, the right brain is emotional, nonverbal, experiential, and autobiographical—and it doesn’t care at all that these words don’t begin with the same letter.

You might think of it this way: the left brain cares about the letter of the law (more of those L’s). As you know, as kids get older they get really good at using this left-brain thinking: “I didn’t shove her! I pushed her.” The right brain, on the other hand, cares about the spirit of the law, the emotions and experiences of relationships. The left focuses on the text—the right is about the context. It was the nonlogical, emotional right brain that prompted Katie to yell to her father, “I’ll die if you leave me!”

In terms of development, very young children are right-hemisphere dominant, especially during their first three years. They haven’t mastered the ability to use logic and words to express their feelings, and they live their lives completely in the moment—which is why they will drop everything to squat down and fully absorb themselves in watching a ladybug crawl along the sidewalk, not caring one bit that they are late for their toddler music class. Logic, responsibilities, and time don’t exist for them yet. But when a toddler begins asking “Why?” all the time, you know that the left brain is beginning to really kick in. Why? Because our left brain likes to know the linear cause-effect relationships in the world—and to express that logic with language.
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