Are You Ever in Your Right Mind? Part 1

While visiting with a new friend the other day, I captured a glimpse of two of her sons. One was athletic and loved the arts–theater and music. Another was strictly academic, a genius with the computer who had no interest in sports. This woman was offering her sons opportunities to develop their strengths, yet she questioned if she was doing enough. How could she help her athletic creative son take more interest in academics? And was it okay for the son to whom school came easily to avoid sports entirely?

So much was brought to mind for me. For decades I had also questioned how the intricate processes of our individually wired brains shaped our learning processes, and, in turn, grouped our learning abilities, habits and eventually our lives for the good and the bad. I had seen it in multitudes of former students, our own children, friends, even in my husband and me.

So are you ready for a voyage into your mind? This post will hopefully be a mind-stretcher. For as much as we think we “know thyself,” have we really mastered our minds as God intended? Most think not; I know not. It is only when we recognize our preconceived constraints (as well as  our parents’ and teachers’) that God’s unlimited abilities and possibilities can be unleashed.

God instills within each of us specific passions and abilities that we easily assimilate and perform because He most likely is steering us towards those areas–math, science, history, the arts, sports, electronics, creating, inventing, building . . .

For some, it might be concentrated and narrowly focused; for others, more fragmented, diverse, creating us to easily handle multiplicity, usually challenged by it. Once we discover it, it becomes our home base. It’s the not-so-easy areas where diligence must be rooted deeply to thrive.

However, not everyone gets it. Many grew up not understanding what was being taught, whether it was in math, English or art class; thus, they missed valuable steps on that subject’s ladder of learning. Most of us weren’t even aware that there was more than one way we could learn. Sadly, too many who are now adults have struggled feeling inferior and “stupid” because they didn’t catch on as quickly as their peers. The problem could be as simple as seeing, hearing or applying that information in a different way. Understanding how we learn is crucial to our lifelong growth.

As an educator, I saw the learning gaps in students who couldn’t absorb information as well as their peers. They soon resorted to developing distractions in hopes that others wouldn’t notice. We sometimes spot that person in adult situations in a meeting, conference or Sunday School class, at the soccer field or around the water cooler.

So how do you learn best?

We typically receive information through either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic means. Simply said, some capture information best visually. They have to “see” it on hand-outs, computer screens, in books, etc. Others are auditory, needing to “hear” someone explain it. The kinesthetic learners are “hands-on” learners. They best absorb information by actually doing what’s being described. Kinesthetic learners are the ones who usually get short-changed as they get older and lecture classrooms are the norm. And yet, we all need those “hands on” activities because they add relevance to what we’re doing.

I’ll always remember the first year I taught junior high English and how I was concerned about a student I’ll call Jacob who was in the ninth-grade and could barely read. I checked his file and then drilled the school psychologist. “How did he get to the ninth-grade without knowing how to read?” Yes, he had moved around a lot, his parents had divorced, and his grades averaged a D-. But what could be done with this young man who now believed he was a failure?

That’s when I learned a thing or two. I had just started Romeo and Juliet in class and assigned an enhancement project for the students to present to the class three weeks later. The students had a choice of projects that incorporated the three learning styles. Jacob and another student Josh who was also academically suppressed chose one of the art projects. Every day these two boys met after school, working for hours, even committing their weekends to the project.

On the day of the presentation, Jacob and Josh carried in a cardtable-size reproduction of the Globe Theater. It was identical to the drawings where Shakespeare presented his plays. The class and I were stunned with the brilliance of the project, the perfection of scale and accuracy of  details. Of course, the whole junior high heard about it and all had to come see it.  Both of these young men beamed, now seeing themselves as a success. After that project,  their approach to classwork held more confidence. They had discovered something that ignited passion; something that was theirs.

So I began praying for ways to reach all of my students. As a result I integrated more hands-on activities into the English classes, and my kinesthetic and right-brained thinkers made a remarkable turnaround. They quit creating problems to avoid working and began participating, fully participating.  They were “actively” enjoying class, learning how to conjugate verbs in song to a strumming minstrel or beating the clock creating ongoing stories using a list of 25  prepositions. (Granted, our classrooms can’t become a dog and pony show, but we can learn how to help young and old better grasp what’s needed.)

So Are You Left? Right? Or a little of both?

If only we could appreciate our finely wired brains and value how our thinking processes vary. It’s in understanding these processes that we can best use our strengths and reinforce our weak links.

Shouldn’t it be a given that God meant for us to use all of it? He built a hard drive incomparable to computers since we don’t just have cognitive (mental) skills, but also affective (attitude/emotions) and psychomotor (manual/physical) abilities.

Join your two fists together, and you’ll get an idea of the approximate size of your brain and its two sides. Picture the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain working the right side of our body; the right cerebral hemisphere of the brain working the left side of the body. (Note how a stroke victim might lose the use of the right side of his/her body and verbal skills on the left side of his/her brain.) The two hemispheres are bridged together with a bundle of fibrous tissues called the corpus callosum. For centuries, it was believed that each side’s functions were mirrored on the opposite side.

In the 1950s psychologist R.W. Sperry and R.E. Myers researched the distinctions, noting that the corpus callosum is the highway overpass that allows access for traveling back and forth between the two sides of the brain. Many left-brain, right-brain studies have resulted. What followed were also studies dividing the brain into quadrants, distinguishing genders, emotional IQ and personality tests, etc., allowing for us to recognize where we fit into that scheme. For ease of understanding, we’re just going to do a brief survey of the two sides.

(Just an FYI: there are numerous Internet sites and books specific to more intense studies that are fascinating for understanding the complexity of our brains. For instance, some researchers believe that creativity is not localized to a dominant side. Many will expound on the reversal of brain activity for a left-handed person.)

My hope is that we become whole-brained, not entrenched in one specific style of thinking, but ever-expanding. I also hope we can be more open to other’s not like us, appreciating their talents, their ways.

So what are the characteristics of the left side of the brain? It’s logical and punctual. It sees things in step-by-step parts and rationally draws its conclusions based on reason and fact. Since it’s the side of the brain that excels in verbal language, the logical left usually takes charge and can dominate a conversation.

Looking at all those strengths, we might wonder why anyone would bother with moving into the right hemisphere. It’s a quiet loner with no sense of time. It bases its insight on intuition, hunches and feelings.  Its habit patterns might suggest unpredictable behavior in our organized left-brained society.

Yet, don’t we honor the results from the brave artists, writers, musicians, architects and inventors who have dared to use their imaginations to create masterpieces, compositions, buildings and discoveries that enlighten our lives? These rare productive right and whole-brainers are considered to have exceptional abilities. They have a secret expressway down a creative highway unknown to many. Why shouldn’t we discover that highway?

So let’s see where you fit by checking the traits that come natural to you:

Left-brained:

  • logical, rational
  • punctual
  • governed by rules: conscious of deadlines, facts
  • sequential: follows each step exactly as directed/ one at a time processing
  • detail oriented
  • organized
  • verbal—expressive with words, talking and writing
  • analytical

Right-brained

  • tests time constraints and easily loses track of time
  • innovative-open to new ways of doing things
  • non-sequential–jumps around on particular tasks, discovering improved processes
  • spontaneous and creative
  • non-verbal
  • intuitive
  • sensitive to feelings

There are no right or wrong answers. You might  discover you vacillate from one side to another, and that’s okay too. We’ve done ourselves a disservice by stigmatizing one another as rigid and inflexible or careless and sloppy. Since we live in a dominantly left-brained world, we’ve dismissed the ones tagged as right-brained as less than serious candidates for anything but the laid-back art projects. Those pegged inconsistent and unprofessional over time thicken in apathy, shrug their shoulders, laugh off their failures, and hope no one will bring it up again. Imagine their relief in learning that was how they were wired? What if they chose to intensify these attributes and bolster the weak left-brained traits to encourage greater productivity, as a student, employee, employer, parent, spouse?

Testing more than 7000 people, brain researcher Ned Hermann noted the fascinating relationship between the person’s occupation and brain dominance.  Those who were organized, sequential, and left-brained dominant focused well as accountants, doctors, nurses, researchers, administrative assistants, attorneys, even writers, because of their verbal strengths. These are professions where punctuality, precision, communication, and sticking to projects reigns supreme. Most of us desire a left-brained accountant to tally our taxes in lieu of one who is right-brained and prefers to try something new or “wing it” and see what happens.

The occupations for right-brained thinkers include artists, poets, politicians, architects, advertising innovators, entrepreneurs, dancers and top executives. “What?” you ask, “Top executives?” Yes, Hermann’s studies proved that those who used both the left and the right sides of their brains proved to be the most successful in their field. He notes that the best CEO’s need access to the right brain to see the whole picture and solve problems. Hermann also added that these top-level administrators always had trusted left-brained personnel to keep them organized.

Knowing all of this has helped me, for in all the ways my husband Bill and I are the same—love for the Lord, work ethic, family values–we’re also quite different. I would score on the left-brained side of verbal expression and midway on being organized. Yet the only reason I’m organized is because I work overtime at it. It’s not at all easy for me.

I want to be organized, but my brain has a hard time processing it. If there is a hard way to do it, then you can count on my doing it that way. So as creative as I might have been in coming up with a new art project while teaching, my far-right brain tendencies are easily exposed when I try to be sequential. For example, my trying to file all the information I’ve gathered over the years is one big hodgepodge. I never could figure out if I wanted everything alphabetical, chronological, in the order in which I taught it, by style, time period, technique, and project. See all my choices? Consequently, I had a lot of piles and did a lot of searching when cross-referencing.

My randomness also occurs when I’m trying to straighten our house. I might begin in our bedroom, take something to the laundry room and get lost there, organizing a shelf. I usually get a lot done, eventually, but only because of my tenacity. But doesn’t it just seem boring to do everything sequentially? Which is why I’m subconsciously figuring out a better and more innovative way to tackle anything, everything.

My husband, on the other hand, scores a “1” in the far-left brain scale. Always totally aware of the time, Bill has taught me how rude I seem when I run late and keep others waiting. He’s “helped” me to pay attention to the time and realize I can’t realistically accomplish those twelve things on my list in the ten minutes before we leave to go somewhere.

“Are you sure?” I still question, while reasoning he’s actually right. (This time, at least.) So can you imagine how grateful I was to learn that’s a common trait for right-brainers–we have no clear concept of time.

I am amazed how Bill’s thinking processes are also extremely linear. He used to get frustrated whenever I gave him more than one honey-do project at a time. “Oh, Honey, while you’re out in the workroom. . . ” I formerly called out. As a multi-tasker, I didn’t get why he had to focus on one thing before going to the next.

However, as a surgeon, it’s probably good Bill’s brain stays focused and thinks sequentially. Even better that he’s not constantly challenged to “switch things up” and figure out a more “creative” way to remove a kidney stone. For that I’m sure his patients are thankful.

The other night while the TV Guide channel was rolling the upcoming programs, Bill commented on the sitcom Dharma and Greg playing above the channels.

“Who could watch such a show? It’s so silly.”

“I did,” I confessed, “after we first got married. Dharma’s artsy personality balances out Greg’s extremely left-brained one. So I got to laugh at us in action.”

Bill looked at Dharma in her hippie garb. “But you’re not anything like Dharma.”

“I know.” I gave him my smirky smile and left it at that, allowing him to consider the wonderful possibilities of being in his right mind (in his off hours, of course).

Take a few minutes to consider how your brain works. List the areas that come easily. Then list what seems to be difficult to grasp, creating problems in your life and in relationships. Ask the Lord to reveal those areas. Pray for tenacity and desire to make the needed changes that are limiting you as well as being freed into what comes easily. God created each of our brains for reasons we should appreciate fully. We can learn from others how they succeed in a left-brained world and still stay open for creative adventures and discoveries God offers through the right side of our brains.

In Psalm 139: 13-14, David praises the Lord by saying, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”  And I love reading how the Lord told Jeremiah in 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”

How can we fathom the fearfully wonderful way the Lord created each of us? Before He even formed us, He knew us! This is a subject we’ll have to come back to next time.

In the Heavy Hurts section I share how I processed through anger and my need for justice. The Inspirational Thought offers a glimpse of how God delights in our early conversations with Him. The art this time is simply decorative. If you receive email updates, you will have to log into the http://annelizabethrobertson.com address to view the other pages.

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