Right Brain-Left Brain — Is It All a Myth?

Well there certainly was some interesting and provocative stuff about the brain in the news in 2013. Last summer, the whole right hemisphere/left hemisphere dominance thing (controversial in neuroscience for quite a while now) was fairly well refuted by researchers at the University of Utah.  In November, a new book came out also dismissing the importance of understanding the two hemispheres in favor of looking at top and bottom brain processing differences (note: it’s a bit simplistic and was not universally well-reviewed). And just before the end of the year, there was new stuff about the difference between male and female brains, once again looking at the hemispheres (and adding fuel to the gender wars).

fingers-in-earsFrankly, it’s all had my head in a bit of a spin, because at BEabove we’ve been digging into the right and left hemisphere in our advanced coaching series, encouraging coaches to use this as one way to understand where their client may be coming from. I’ve also written blog posts here about the different aspects of each hemisphere, spoken about it at conferences, and all in all, held this part of neuroscience as a key thing to understand in both coaching and leadership.

So you can imagine my reaction! Part of me wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and say “la la la I can’t hear you.” But my better angels prevailed, and instead I sat down and tried my best to make sense of it all. Here’s what I’ve come to, and let me say it is an emerging and probably imperfect understanding (just like our overall understanding of the brain itself at this point in humanity’s development):

1) IT’S TRUE — We really should probably  stop calling people “right brained” or “left brained.” According to brain imaging studies, it’s not accurate. At most, it’s a metaphor that is not literally true. As the University of Utah study found, we’re simply not more likely to use one side or the other based on our overall personality. No matter who we are, we use both to do most things. Creative people (who we tend to think of as “right-brained”) use their left side as much as logical people, and logical people (who we tend to think of as “left-brained”) use their right as much as creative people.

2) HOWEVER — There is still much to be learned about who we are by examining and understanding the differences of each hemisphere. Our brains are specialized for a reason — it is what enables us to have the giant brains we have and still walk upright. Our heads just couldn’t get any bigger and still pass through the birth canal, so each hemisphere took on different tasks, and a different way of looking at the world (for more on this, see Come On Over to the Right Side). Which brings us to…..

3) PERHAPS — According to the lead author of the Utah study, “people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-side brain network. It seems to be determined more connection to connection.” This means we could be seeing more right or left hemisphere activation around particular issue although not in the entire brain or personality as a whole (see point #1). Thus, understanding the different way each hemisphere sees the world can be very helpful with our journey of self-awareness, as well as understanding our clients and helping them move forward when they are stuck.

4) BECAUSE — Ultimately, it’s not about right or left (or top and bottom, either). It’s about how integrated we can be. For example, research on so-called “resonant” leaders (who tended to put their followers in an open, creative brain state) versus “dissonant” leaders (who tended to create an avoidance state in their followers) found that resonant leaders had more neural firing in both hemispheres of the brain. And long-term meditators develop stronger areas for both positivity (left hemisphere) and compassion (right hemisphere), as well as a measurably thicker corpus callosum, the bridge between the two hemispheres. This bridge helps both connect the two hemispheres as well as allowing each to effectively inhibit the other as needed (see Inhibition and the Brain for more on inhibition and its link to effectiveness). We don’t need or want to be “dominant” in one or the other hemisphere in order to be more effective. We need to become more integrated between our hemispheres, stronger not in one, but in both.

And so, let’s by all means be accurate and up to date, but not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ok, it’s not accurate to call someone “right brained” or “left Throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-waterbrained.” We can give that up or use it as a metaphor. Fair enough. But understanding the differences between the two hemispheres does, in our opinion, remain interesting and helpful in the process of working to create more integration and ultimately, higher levels of effectiveness. So there. And la la la I can’t hear you if you insist on telling me differently!

Sigh. Not really.

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What Does it Take to Change the Brain?

changesI’ve written about neuroplasticity here before a few times, but since it is a fascinating, complex topic (like everything about the brain, right?) I thought I’d share a few more thoughts about some of what we are learning helps or hinders our ability to change.

Neuroplasticity—Keys and Enhancers

Neuroplasticity is, simply put, the capacity of the brain to change throughout life. It can occur on a variety of levels, ranging from changes due to learning or growth, to large-scale changes in response to injury (see Norman Doidge’s entertaining The Brain that Changes Itself for more on the latter). While for most of the 20th century, general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively unchanging after early childhood, current understanding is that many aspects of the brain remain plastic—that is, changeable—even into adulthood.

And so,  we can (and do) change. But what does it take? And why do some people succeed at developing new habits where others fail miserably? Well, extensive research points to certain keys to neuroplasticity, without which it is more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the brain to make neuroplastic changes. In addition to these keys, there are additional aspects which also assist with or enhance the process. In both cases, the more keys/aspects, the better.

Five Keys to Neuroplasticity*

The following five keys are necessary to the process of making new neural connections. The more one of more of these keys is compromised, the harder it will be for the brain to stay flexible, healthy and cognitively sharp, especially through aging and stress.

1. Exercise

Exercise improves blood flow and increases oxygen levels, which increase neuron growth. (The brain is only 2% of our body mass but it consumes 20% of our oxygen and nutrients.) Exercise also increases the volume of white and grey matter in the brain, by increasing brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary to neuronal growth. A minimum of 30 minutes three times a week is generally recommended, although shorter workouts of more intensity and longer with less are helpful as well.

2. Sleep

A healthy adults needs between 7-9 hours of sleep (Teens need 8.5 – 9.25 hours). During sleep our brain has the chance to integrate learning and also combs through information and decides what is needed and what is not. Neural impulses are literally reversed from our waking state, which serves to both clean out unneeded information and prime the cells for learning and memory in the future.

3. Food

The brain needs Omega-3s and vitamins from foods to create new neural pathways. It’s also critically important to stay away from foods and substances that inhibit neural growth and/or create inflammation. According to new research, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, vegetable oils and many grains may all contribute to non-optimal brain states. Promising research finds coconut oil, berries, B vitamins (and much more) helping to build neural connections in the brain.

4. Novelty

New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring!

5. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters (such as BDNF, mentioned above in the Exercise section) responsible for creating new neural connections. In addition, many studies have linked meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness or density of gray matter.

Four Enhancers to Neuroplasticity

The following four enhancers are extremely helpful to the process of making new neural connections. The more we have of each, in combination with the five keys, the easier it is to learn, remember, and change.

 1. Relationships

We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others creates fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. When we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.

2. Mistakes

A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.

3. Humor/Play

Humor relaxes and bonds us, and is a wonderful ally in helping to overcome the brain’s strong negativity bias. Laughter has been shown to release oxytocin, which not only makes us feel more bonded and connected and trusting, it’s also a great anti-inflammatory agent. Good humor also often plays upon the unexpected, causing us to think in new ways (novelty). Similarly, being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made and learned from in a safe environment.

4. Multi-Sensory Input

The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy.

 

*A huge thank-you to Dr. Daniel Siegel for first sharing the Five Keys to Neuroplasticity with me.

Coming soon: a complete bibliography of studies supporting these keys and enhancers. Stay tuned!