Left and right brain tango

We are right brained creatures for the first 2 years,  to such an extent that our right brain becomes, and remains, the larger of the two hemispheres, especially its anterior parts. The left hemisphere only begins to develop from the second year onwards. By and large the right hemisphere perceives experience as holistic and relational, but also fearful when pushed to its extremes.  When you are a little creature  in the jungle, the object of prey, you get into right brain mode.  You flee your attackers, you run to your protectors. Animal studies confirm this.

When you are in left brain mode, the experiential mode is more linear, logical and particulate, but it has an exploratory element , a curiosity, that becomes murderous when pushed to extremes;  a predator mode.

Iain McGilchrist, in  his book “The Master and his Emissary” reviews  cutting edge neurobiology  research into  hemisphericity, and its impact on history art, culture politics. Each hemisphere of the brain has its way of being, a different “take” on the world,  a different “version” of the world.  “The left hemisphere has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world”.  The right has a broader outlook, “has no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever might be”,  including  protectors and predators. Right brain is relational, but also apprehensive. Iain favours the notion that it is a good thing when left and right hemispheres are relating well with each, because a third more integrative mode of awareness becomes possible. 

Professor Jack Pettigrew (University of Queensland) sees clinical mania as a state dominated by left hemisphericity, where predator mode has gone berserk, delusionally self-righteous. In depressive states, right hemispheric activities predominate.  Jack  advances some compelling neuroscience evidence for this.

I am condensing and oversimplifying enormously, but there is  much convergence across neurobiology, animal ethology, and social psychology research to support  these broad strokes, and their experiential grounding. 

In fact, you can try some of this out for yourself.  Look at which side a nursing mother holds her infant. The chances are it will be on her left, all the better to support maternal right brain to infant right brain communication, as recent studies confirm. 

When you are with your dog, or observing  a magpie in your backyard,  note which eye orients towards you (remember left eye equals right brain attention, and vice versa).  Looking at you with her left eye (right brain), your dog is in  relational mode, may want to give or receive some nurturing. Your magpie however is less  familiar with you , and  her right brain could be in apprehension mode.

Now your companion’s head orients to the right (right eye left brain), and you are an object of curiosity and play. But if  you are with a dingo and his right head (left brain) is looking at you too persistently,  you’d better take cover, curiosity may be turning to predation .

But what does this have to do with nurturance?  Again, put simply, the goodness of the dance of attunement between  baby and  carer depends on a base of security, and actually determines crucial aspects of brain development, in particular capacity for self monitoring, empathy, relationship, impulse control, “theory of mind” (the capacity to know and map the inner lives of other beings),  themes well developed by UCLA child psychiatrist researcher Dan Seigel and his colleagues. The actual brain wiring and the “programmes” that develop and get supported by  this  depend on nurturance.  If attunement is consistent , left and right hemispheric functions will develop optimally;  good relationship between mother and child, good relationship between amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Once past infancy, and assuming you have had a “good enough” experience of nurturance, you are now neurologically equipped to develop broader connections with  society and culture. This is paralleled by better quality left right hemispheric attunement.

Patricia O’Rourke, a gifted baby and infant therapist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, nurtures the nurturers. She helps women struggling to mother their babies and infants, by bringing an experientially grounded sensitivity which draws on her deep experience of psychodrama, the most powerfully interactive of all the psychotherapies. She has written a thoughtful thesis on the links between nurturance, attunement processes and psychodramatic modes of enactment.   In essence, once a secure base has been established (for the baby in nurturance , for the protagonist in the psychodrama), several mutually interactive processes can  then be accessed, which will develop sense of self and other, greater capacity for self- tracking (‘mindfulness’ if you will), greater empathy with others, and those experiences of vitality that we call play or spontaneity or creativity.  Processes of healing and reparation emerge as all of the above goes on. Patricia distinguishes several processes common to the two domains. In the psychodrama, the protagonist  is supported by the audience and a cast of actors. Their triple task is to “mirror”, “double”, and “role reverse”.  Mirroring or reflection by the group shows the protagonist what is going on for her. In doubling, one of the actors takes this further, and immerses themselves in the protagonist’s state of mind, as a resonating “twin” prepared to take her turmoil into their own being. In role reversal, this capacity for empathy extends further, as actors take on the roles of critical others in the protagonist’s life (the mothers, husbands, children, friends and enemies etc).   There is of course a parallel  in the infant’s nurturing process. A mother “mirrors” her baby when she matches her noises and movements, so that the baby can receive something of herself and begin to build a sense of self. In “doubling”, she takes it further by  resonating deeply with her baby’s state of being . The baby can now get a sense of being deeply empathised with,  she now has a companion who bounces with her joys and aches with her sorrows.  Her developing awareness of self deepens because there is a sense of being kindly understood. Resilience is promoted, and a dawning sense of the “other” as separate but loving. Later on, as the capacity for play and language increase, and left and right brain begin to interact,  both cognitive and emotional empathy can extend beyond the mother-infant pair to include others, paralleling the capacity for “role reversal” we see in psychodrama. Mistakes will be made, but they can also be repaired. This reparative re-assurance moves the child beyond Hamurabbi’s rigid  universe of “what once is written can never never be unwritten”.

Coming from a different direction (Self-psychology and the syntactic analysis of  interactions between therapists and their patients, and mother and their infants) Professor Russel Meares comes to similar conclusions. “Theory of mind” (the capacity for empathy) and the capacity for play/creativity/healthy spontaneity emerge through good quality nurturance.  His classic “The Metaphor of Play” is worth  re-reading.

The psychoanalyst Neville Symington reminds us that there are subtler forms of nurturance failure that also have a profound impact on our capacity for empathy.  Neville is a world expert on  narcissistic process, which he understands as a state of mind that always prefers fantasy and rejects the real.  This is familiar to all of us as the “morning after “ syndrome.  Last night,  Brad Pitt’s  clone came into our life, across the proverbial crowded room.. The fantasy got a battering when we discovered his name was Brian, he came from Gundagai, and wore purple underpants. In the morning, we dismiss him. He just does not measure up to the fantasy.  And yet, had we not been so fixated on the romantic vision, and got to know the real being better, we may have found that he is a jazz pianist and  loves dogs and children. We may have even found that our opinion of purple underpants has improved.

This dismissive approach to the real and actual has some of its roots in early nurturance patterns.

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2 Responses to Left and right brain tango

  1. Stephen says:

    Also recommend Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor’s description of left-right hemisphere functioning. It’s a TED talk (easily found on the net), and is one of TED’s top 10 popular presentations.

    • Beautiful talk…….but it is the RIGHT hemisphere that fails to develop properly when there is early childhood abuse or neglect…….assuming that if Jill had had a difficult early childhood, and yet somehow COULD have managed to deal with education etc…..she would have found that her Left stroke experience would have left her with a miserable, frightened Right brain, rather than the holistic experience she had.

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