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  • January 26, 2015
  • By Don Kerson

Left-Brain Selves and Right-Brain Selves

This is an excerpt from Dr. Kerson's book, Getting Unstuck. The first chapter is available here. You can sign up for Dr. Don's newsletter to get Chapter 3. Or buy the book to get it all.

In the past I have introduced the idea that there are two contrasting ways of processing and storing information, which I called left-brained and right-brained. In the early stages of childhood, the selves that are created are all essentially right-brained. What do I mean by this?

The original distinctions won the Nobel Prize for Roger Sperry, Ph.D., and his associates. These researchers examined split-brain patients, patients in whom the corpus callosum, the main connection between the left and the right cerebral hemispheres, was severed in order to control intractable seizures. What these examinations revealed was that the verbal abilities in these patients were primarily contained in the left hemisphere and the visual and spatial abilities were contained in the right hemisphere. The examinations also revealed that in split-brain patients these hemispheres could function independently, that each could contain knowledge not available to the other. The right brain could point to an object it had seen, and the left brain could remain unable to name that object because it (through visual-field manipulation) had not seen it. They were dissociated — in these cases, anatomically so.

For the purposes of this discussion, when we say “left- brained” and “right-brained,” we are talking about two complementary modes of thinking that are at first primarily located as electrical activity in their respective hemispheres. They do not always stay so tightly localized. In people who develop in a healthy manner and remain relatively untraumatized, the selves become increasingly complex and increasingly able to hold both thinking styles in mind at once.

We can begin to distinguish these two mental modes by saying that the right brain is primarily nonverbal, closer to reality, closer to the direct experience of the sensory transducers. It is visual, spatial, musical, emotional, social, and sexual. It's about the body and its movement and position. The left brain is one step removed. It's symbolic; it's representational. The right brain “sees” a whole picture, and, more important, it can infer the whole even when it sees only some of the disconnected parts. The left brain takes things one bit of information at a time. It is literal, much less skilled at inference. The right brain is there first, both developmentally and probably evolutionarily or anthropologically as well, cataloging experience in patterns, knowing things without necessarily being able to describe them. Then the left brain comes along to label and catalogue the experience in language, in symbols. The left brain judges. The right brain experiences. The left brain analyzes. The right brain accepts. The left brain plans. The right brain acts. The left brain is about goals. The right brain is about process. The left brain sees details and facts, but the right brain sees the ineffable, which cannot be described in words, which is too complex for words. The left brain is about interacting with the outer world. The right brain is about contact with the inner world.

The right brain is visual, experiential, holistic, and pattern-seeing. This is why it is able to make inferences from incomplete data, to fill in gaps. It is able to understand things that cannot be justified. It is able to go beyond the facts and details. The left brain is verbal, judging, comparing, digital, and goal-directed. It is responsible for naming and planning, for following the rules, for being good. These are two complementary modes, each essential to full humanity.

A favorite hypnotic text of mine, Hypnotherapy Scripts by Ronald A. Havens and Catherine Walters (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2013), uses the metaphor of a captain and his crew to describe the interaction of functions between the left and the right brains. The left brain is the captain, charting the course, deploying resources, arranging for the training of his men. The crew executes the captain's commands, often performing functions that the captain himself cannot perform. There are many ways in which such an arrangement can work. Ideally, the captain consults the crew, gets their invaluable front-line input, and makes decisions and commands only after he judges both the ability and the willingness of his crew to follow them. But what if the captain is harsh and closed-minded? His crew may be overtly defiant — or, worse, covertly so. What if the captain is anxious and overcontrolling, and doesn't trust his crew? He may try to do everything himself, at the price of tremendous inefficiency. What if the captain has poor charts and inaccurate information? And so on.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Kerson's book, Getting Unstuck. The first chapter is available here. You can sign up for Dr. Don's newsletter to get Chapter 3. Or buy the book to get it all.

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