Books I Read: Exploring our fascinating four faceted brain
Of the recommended readings I've received on the mind/brain connection, this Whole Brain Living has been the most rewarding by far.
I'd say it's a layman targeted must read on the workings of the brain, offering a practical approach to managing our conflicting brain signals. As a bonus, there's an interesting hypothesis on the brain/spirituality connection are linked and observations on how the developing 21st global-techno consciousness may prove to be both a boon and a danger.
The author of the book is Jill Bolte-Taylor, a Harvard neuro-anatomist who experienced a severe hemorrhage in her left brain hemisphere which caused her to lose the ability to walk, talk, read, write or recall any of her life. Her first book, My Stroke of Insight, documents her experience of the stroke and subsequent rehabilitation, focusing on her discoveries about how the different parts of the brain contribute to normal human function. In this book, she uses her insights from that experience to develop a framework she believes will be helpful for the rest of us. As such it has the feel of deep knowledge and authentic lived experience, something I'd definitely go by.
Here's a quick summary of what I learnt:
According to Bolte-Taylor, when we think about the brain, we shouldn't just be thinking about a left and right hemisphere joined by a corpus callosum that allows communication between the two. We've to also take the intra-divisional between the cortex and the limbic systems (mainly amygdala, hippocampus and gyri) account. We can loosely think of the left frontal cortex as the thinking, organizing, executing part of the brain that keeps our lives organized and on tract. The two limbic systems take in and process our experiences of the outside world. The left limbic system is the watchful emotional center which can express grief, anger and other forms of woundedness as well as conditioned happiness. It stores memories of previous trauma and will compare new experiences to previous ones and will sound alerts if we are in danger of being wounded in the same manner again. The right limbic system is on the lookout for novel and exciting experiences. It will process these input as a 'now', without reference to the past, and as a whole instead of in specifics. This limbic system is where in the moment 'joy' is felt.
According to Bolte-Taylor the right frontal cortex is the silent center of unconditional love and our link to cosmic consciousness. It is usually inhibited by the doing/planning left frontal cortex, and will only come to the fore when when we are not planning and analyzing or replaying our reward and punishment circuits or our experiences of grief and angst.. IN support of this, she offers the factlet that MRI scans of monks and Franciscan nuns show that the heightened spiritual states attained while they are meditating or praying occur when the left hemispheric brain is at rest.
Bolte-Taylor also runs through a qualitative analysis of how the American brain may have changed over the last hundred years due to changes in socio-cultural and technological factors. For example, the generation born in the first quarter of the 20th century did not have much formal schooling, tended to live in smaller agriculture based communities with strong linkages to religious institutions and suffered the trauma of the first and second world wards.. They would probably have used all four parts of their brains in a balanced way. The baby-boomers were more educated and tended to work in factories and with machines. They also grew up in a time of plenty in mostly intact two-parent families. Their life styles hence favored the development of the left cortex and right limbic system.
The children of baby-boomer were the first generation brought up with electronic media. They would have used experiential machines (TV and speak and spell programs) to learn how to read and write, being the first humans to learn left cortex functions with the experiential right limbic system. Socially, many would have been brought up by absent parents or in single parent families, forcing them to rely on their own left-brain executive functions to manage themselves at a relatively early age. Emotional trauma may also have been experienced in dysfunctional families where children were left to fend for themselves, causing the left limbic system to be highly sensitive. This is also a time when the the right frontal cortex, which might have been ignored previously in the materialistic 1950s and early 1960's comes back to the fore, with the rising interest in 'new-age' and alternative spirituality practices.
Bolte-Taylor then moves on to the 21st century. She notes that we are now seeing the rise of a global techno consciousness. Our human brains are now working consciously with our tech devices, which monitor our biological status, provide social connections, therapeutic interventions for our wounded psyches and programs to feed our spiritual needs. According to Bolte-Taylor, this is both exciting and terrifying. Our brains operate on a negative feedback system, whereby too much of anything in one hemisphere is inhibited by the functions of the opposing hemisphere. For example, we cannot get too lost in meditation because the right limbic system will feel hunger, which the left will process as being dangerous, hence prompting the right frontal cortex to worry about making dinner. Homeostasis is restored. Technological systems, on the other hand, tend to have positive feedback. Computer games and training programs trigger a buzz which encourages us to continue in the same activity, leaving us vulnerable to exhaustion and addiction.
For a reader of little knowledge when it comes to the brain, that's a huge amount of food for thought.
Here's what irked me, albeit only a little:
This is a self-help book. It sells a practice called the Brain Huddle, which encourages us to pause and breathe, recognize which part of our brain is currently being active, appreciate it's contribution, inquire what all four parts of the brains make of the situation, then navigate through it using the whole brain contributions. That's a pretty useful thing to do, but she does throw the label around too many times and it is irritating.
Bolte-Taylor is an American mid-Westerner. This book is targeted at the layman. She does therefore use very obvious US sports metaphors, for example the Huddle and the collective consciousness of euphoria when a baseball team wins.
I suppose her left frontal cortex has an agenda and a target audience in mind. Now if only she'd listen to her right brain and reach out wider.
All in all though, despite these quibbles I'd say, dive into this book. You'll come out refreshed.
My own takeaways are as follows:
In my day to day activities, I am stopping to breathe, recognize, appreciate, investigate and navigate when I remember to.
In my writing, I'm accessing the different parts of my brain to write different characters. What for example is a wounded angsty teenager's take on his father's new wife versus the feelings of his sympathetic aunt or his in-the-moment hippy older sister?
Have you ever ventured to write from the different parts of your brain? Would it be wroth your while to read this book to figure out how to do this?
Audrey Chin is an award-winning Singaporean writer whose work explores the intersections of culture, faith and gender. She believes in the imponderables including love, god and ghosts AND she's an omnivore when it comes to books.
Buy her books here.