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Being of Two Minds

We all live in two different worlds at the same time—no, not fantasy and reality, or thought and experience, but rather the differing perspectives provided by the bilateral—left and right hemispheric—brain. This division is useful to understand if we want to appreciate our emotional activations, not to mention the often mysterious ways in which we operate.

Even 2,500 years ago The Buddha was well aware of the composite nature of the mind, suggesting that meditation is best served when experience is broken down into components (note the satipatthana sutta):

1) rupa, basic body sensations, 
2) vedana, underlying, largely somatic states of comfort and discomfort, gut feelings, 
and the two higher cognitive realms of
3) citta—the mind's higher, non-verbal processes, such as emotional activations and the quality of attention;
4) dhammas
the realm of thought based mental content. 


So let's review the research of Roger Sperry and his colleague Michael Gazzaniga*, performed at Caltech in the 1960s and first published in 1967's "The Split Brain in Man" and continued in countless research by neuroscientists, neuropsychologists, neurologists (for example, note the work of Zaidel and Bogen.**)

The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body, focuses on long term goals, plans, agendas and communicates its ideas via clear, denotive language, provides lucidity and operates tools; it is actively involved in maintaining our inner autobiography and stores time-stamped memories in a chronological order; maintains fixed and static abstract ideas such as 'duty' 'responsibilities' 'right versus wrong,' it is the governor of narrow, conscious tasks.
The right hemisphere controls the left side of the body, and via operations that occur below awareness, monitors our interpersonal alliances and signals its concerns via a wide array of largely non-verbal feelings and sensations; it reads the body language of others and provides ongoing, wide vigilance; rather than crisp abstract ideas it maintains a fluid, interconnected view of experience, providing us with the emotional map that helps us predict how others will behave; it's the mysterious force guiding our romantic attractions and social fears.

In sum, the brain is systemically divided, and these regions have only continued to become increasingly independent over the course of evolution: human beings have significantly smaller corpus callosums than other, related species***—i.e.. the ratio of the collosum to the volume of the hemispheres is low in homo sapiens. (It's also worth noting that the brain is asymmetric, broader on the right at the front, broader on the left in the back, despite how symmetrical the skull that encases the brain.) 


Why are the left and right sides of the brain divided in such a manner? Perhaps a simple way to think of it is that all animals are required to balance two principle tasks to thrive****: 
  • We have to be able to focus on and achieve goals that allow us to prosper, such as finding food, shelter, survival advantages.
  • We have to maintain a background awareness of threats, along with a sense of how securely we are attached to and protected by our tribe. We are pack animals after all. 


The quality of these two worlds is that we blend and incorporate them in different manners all the time. Throughout the course of history many great organizing principles—spiritual and otherwise—started out with beautiful integrations of the hemispheric goals, blending the clarity and goals of the left with the fluid metaphors and images of the right. 

When we fail to blend these two worlds, suffering is the inevitable result: we drift increasingly to what the left hemisphere creates when left unchecked; a network of highly convoluted, abstract, inhumane bureaucratic rules. Pursuing narrow ideas of happiness, based on material acquisition, leads to resentment, competition, a sense of personal failure. Needless wars over national, ethnic and religious ideas are largely left hemispheric in nature; it can bog us down amidst details and useless information but understand little about the affairs of the heart, which to the logic mind seem increasingly mysterious and unknowable. 

The left hemisphere is very convincing and consistent, it controls the messages, whereas the right doesn't have a discernible voice, but if we don't appreciate the beauty of the associative mind, and know the limits of logic and reason, we wind up bogged down in meaningless details.


Fortunately we humans have massive frontal lobes that enable us to stand back from the looming onrush of the sensory experience, allowing us to override our needlessly aggressive or fearful impulses, to mentalize—understand each other's underlying intentions—and to empathize. This is a profoundly useful distance from the world; were we incapable of detaching from experience, incapable of stepping back from it all, we'd always bite and bark, rarely forgive. 

Despite how we buddhists tend to believe that staying mindfully aware of sensory experience is the profound solution to human suffering, detachment from the world—provided by our frontal lobes—is a great advantage: rather than be driven by impulses, we can look beyond appearances and read others underlying motivations. Yes, wily detachment allows us to scheme and manipulate others, but it allows us to accept apologies and bury those hatchets.

What's most important is that we appreciate the messages sent to us via the intuitive mind. Rather than viewing our emotions as inconvenient symptoms getting in the way of our goals, our dreams, Freudian slips, fears, frustrations and sadness are all profoundly spiritual and sacred endowments, the very stuff that allows us to climb out of the maze like puzzle our rational, left hemispheric minds lead us to when they rule us, unchecked. 


How do we reconnect with the citta, appreciate the emotional messages of the right hemisphere? We develop insight through non-judgmental awareness, we share our feelings with wise friends who know how to listen without interrupting or giving us suggestions, we draw and write without editing, we free associate, we dance, we dream, we look at art and watch films that make 'no sense' (a weekend of David Lynch masterpieces should do the trick).

To summarize the above, we're always of two minds, so if we ever find our actions or motivations puzzling, it simply means we've drifted too far from one, at the expense of the other.


* The current scientific insights into the nature of the bilateral brain—that the brain's left and right hemispheres perform considerably different tasks—became apparent after a series of split-brain surgeries which were performed on patients to alleviate severe epileptic seizures. The surgery severed the corpus callosum, which connects the brain's twin regions. After this procedure a patient's hemispheres failed to fluidly exchange information and began to act without integration, revealing their core responsibilities. Sperry and Gazzaniga's research concerned these patients.





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